Everyone has their pop culture blind spots. Some people have never seen Star Wars or read Harry Potter or watched an episode of Seinfeld. (All of those are unforgivable and if they apply to you I demand that you take immediate steps to rectify the situation!… Just kidding… sort of.) One of mine is Agatha Christie. I have never read any of her books nor seen any of the film or TV adaptations of her works in their entirety (I have seen part of Witness for the Prosecution). In fact, the most exposure I’ve had to Agatha Christie is that episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor and Donna Noble solve a mystery with Christie’s help and end up fighting a giant wasp. But her legacy of tightly-constructed mysteries, brilliant detectives, compelling characters, and her sprawling influence on books, film, and TV for the last hundred years or so is simply inescapable, and I know that some of my very favorite works owe her a huge debt. So it was that I went into the new version of Murder on the Orient Express without any Christie-related baggage, lacking any devotion to a previous adaptation of the story or to the original source novel. In the end I found it to be fully enjoyable, with a compelling mystery highlighted by a fantastic cast who are clearly having a great time, set against a sumptuous and lavish backdrop, all solidly anchored by director and leading man Kenneth Branagh.
Branagh plays the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s most frequent protagonist, and we meet him in the midst of solving a crime in Jerusalem armed only with his enormous mustache, his cane, an obsession with perfection, and the “little grey cells” in his brain that make him the smartest man in the room. Having neatly wrapped up this case Poirot is summoned to London to assist on another, and manages to book a slot on the Orient Express. As the train makes its way through snow-covered mountains, Poirot meets and observes his fellow passengers, which include a missionary, a governess, a doctor, a princess, a German professor, a count and countess, along with a “businessman,” Ratchett, and his associates. When Ratchett makes an offer to hire Poirot as a bodyguard to protect him from enemies he’s made through his shady business dealings Poirot refuses. But that night as the train steams along a mountainside an avalanche derails the engine, stranding the Express just as Ratchett is murdered. Poirot finds himself unwillingly dragged into solving the case in the limited time before the train can be set right and the compartment full of passengers, now suspects, have an opportunity to escape.
As a mystery, Murder on the Orient Express works pretty well. I won’t spoil anything of course, but the fact that I somewhat guessed the outcome halfway through is a testament to the influence Christie has had on the mystery genre rather than the quality of the story being told. It has its twists and turns, red herrings here, false accusations there, and arrives at a resolution that is surprising yet believable. It bears many hallmarks of what we’d expect from an iconic whodunit, with a cast of colorful characters each with their own secrets waiting to be revealed by an enterprising mind ready to catch them in their deceits, and it’s perfectly satisfying to a viewer like me. The whole affair seems a little rushed, though. Most of the suspects are underdeveloped, or sometimes hardly mentioned at all, leaving me occasionally confused as to how the pieces of the puzzle fit together or what role a particular character played in events. As a result the final answer to the murder mystery left me with a bit of a furrowed brow, not because I didn’t buy the solution or because the story didn’t make sense but simply because I was left trying to sort a few things out myself whose explanations were somewhat glossed over.
But while the mystery at the heart of the film may have been a little rushed, though still perfectly satisfying, Murder on the Orient Express finds other ways to shine. Branagh has surrounded himself with an excellent cast of big names and familiar faces. Big names like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, and Willem Dafoe join frequent Branagh collaborators Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi alongside younger stars like Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, and Leslie Odom Jr. to throw their weight behind the story. None of the ensemble is given a whole lot to sink their teeth into, though most of them are given a few moments to shine and they’re all talented enough to make the most out of their scenes. It’s easy to get the feeling that this cast had a great time filming together, putting on period costumes and sliding into these characters who all have closely guarded secrets. Your enjoyment of the film might be highly dependent on your ability to find enjoyment in that sense of camaraderie among the cast and their ability to match up with Branagh at the heart of the whole affair. As for the man himself, Branagh makes for an entertaining Poirot, with his character quirks and his ego, though the script feels a bit polarized at times with a humorous Poirot at the start of the film fading to straight drama by the end.
The production is gorgeous, however. Whether it’s one of the many shots of the Express winding its way over mountains or through the countryside, or the detailed sets or costumes, or simply the way it frames an actor’s face, Murder on the Orient Express is a very pretty film to look at. Hardly a frame goes by that isn’t pleasing to the eye, and Branagh along with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos deserve plenty of credit for finding a visual style that so perfectly suits the film. It invites you into the story, whether it’s hoping to spot a clue, catch a suspect in a lie, or simply feeling the claustrophobia of being trapped in the snow with a murderer. Add on to that the wonderfully atmospheric score by Patrick Doyle and you’ve got a movie that just feels good to watch.
I can’t compare this version of Murder on the Orient Express to the popular 1974 Sidney Lumet version starring Albert Finney as Poirot, to the various TV versions, or even to the original novel, but I’m sure Agatha Christie fans are bound to already have their favorites. To them I can only imagine this new version is a disappointment. It’s neither as mysterious, suspenseful, surprising, or emotional as perhaps it could or should be. It could have benefitted from a longer running time to give the cast more time to build their characters. It moves too quickly as it untangles the threads of the plot and leaves too many things confusing. But to a Christie virgin like me it was a fun way to spend a few hours at the movies. It takes some of my favorite actors, consummate professionals all, and gives them a beautiful backdrop upon which to play out this mystery together. It may not be a perfect film or even a perfect Agatha Christie adaptation, but it’s good enough for me.