FILM REVIEW: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS Tries To Adapt A Classic Tale To Modern Tastes
Kenneth Brannagh and a dozen or so superstars board a train in Istanbul for a date with destiny in the latest adaptation of the Agatha Christie all-time classic, Murder on the Orient Express. The film, adapted slyly to the tastes of audiences in 2017, is fighting a losing battle against time, much like Poirot is. Audiences today by and large have little interest in slow burn, talking mysteries that require cerebral exposition and provide little action. What made Christie brilliant and compelling was her insight into the human mind. She was never supposed to be Ian Flemming. Still, the movie adaptation works because the underlying material is just that powerful, and helped by solid performances by the star-studded cast.
The eccentric Belgian detective Poirot (Brannagh, who also directed) is approached early on a snow-bound ride through Europe by a mysterious man who claims his life is in danger. The mysterious Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is soon found brutally-murdered in his cabin, a classic locked room mysterious and, as the tagline goes, everyone is a suspect. The array of suspicious characters includes people from around the world, including the reclusive Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and her love interest, Colonel Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.). The Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and an aging, pathetically seductive superstar (Michelle Pfeiffer) also roam the halls of the Calais Coach, where most of the action takes place. Josh Gad is one of Ratchett’s servants and Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz add themselves to the melting pot.
As Poirot investigates the mysterious occurrence on the Orient Express, it soon becomes apparent that little is what it seems and that most if not all of the passengers have skeletons in their proverbial closets. It is one of the most well-known and landmark mysteries of the 20th Century, already the subject of a 1974 movie that received a Best Picture Oscar nomination and featured its own array of superstars including Sean Connery and Ingrid Bergman.
Brannagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express works on many levels. For one, the color palette has been updated from the more staid yellow and brown tones of the Sidney Lumet version to the present, with more sinister reds and contrasting blues dotting the snowy background. And the acting this time is surprisingly strong, lifted by a great performance by Pfeiffer (what a year she’s having I suppose), Depp, and Dench in particular. Brannagh himself is likely the weakest acting link, butchering the supposedly distinctive accent and playing Poirot with mustaches that seem over exaggerated from the more staid description that Christie gave.
But exaggeration is the name of the game. The 1930s where then, and 2017 is now. The audience wants action, explosions, fist fights. Brannagh’s version gives them that to some degree, and those are Murder on the Orient Express’s weakest moments, at least to this fan of the original. A chase sequence to the Holy City in the opening scenes is actually a wasted opportunity. The story actually began in Aleppo, Syria, and the writers waste a chance to remind the audience of just how quickly things can change in the world and around us.
And it is not just the lack of a history lesson, but the addition of incredible love interests and gun shots in particular that do not fit with the tightly constructed, infinitely logical resolution that Christie crafted for her characters and the story.
I am no purist. I understand why Aburthnot’s character was made black in this adaptation (Christie’s work is notably devoid of non-white British people, except of course for Poirot himself), and why discussing racial issues that were brewing in the 1930s is interesting and does not change the tenor of the story. I understand why some of the European slavs have been replaced for Hispanics. But there is only so far that one can bend rules without them breaking, and one must tread carefully when working with the Queen of Crime’s work.
Overall, however, Murder on the Orient Express still works as a classic murder and intrigue tale. Brannagh’s signature style—his love for craft, costume, cinematography—serve him well here. The atmosphere is moody and heavy, but it is supposed to be thus. And the critical scene in which Poirot offers the solution to the mysterious is the one change he arguably gets right, switching from the cramped confines of the restaurant car to an artfully and conveniently staged theater stage outside the titular train. The drama increases in that instance, proving again that some change is in fact good.
There is no doubt that fans of the original work, and devoted fans of Christie’s novels, will eat this up like catnip. Seeing this classic tale on the big screen, reimagined and reinvented, is always a delight. Brannagh is a careful director and you do not envy what are likely studio directives to make it more “punchy” for today’s audience. The touches he tries to embellish the story with, although notable, are actually light. He does not stray one bit from the core of the story, the cascade of confusing and contradictory clues, and the ultimate denouement, the tale’s most important element.