“Probably” better than Sherlock
In all my time watching movies, I have never once watched an Agatha Christie adaptation. Nothing personal, but I did find it amusing that I always had a blind spot for aristocratic mystery fiction despite my deep love for film noir detective stories. Nonetheless, I became very excited to learn that Kenneth Branagh would not only direct one of Christie’s famous works, Murder on the Orient Express, but would star in it as well. So Branagh got some money from Ridley Scott and hired a smorgasbord of high profile and high caliber actors to serve as the suspects in this little murder mystery. The result is a highly polished film for an entertaining time in the theater.
Branagh leads as Hercule Poirot, “probably the greatest detective in the entire world,” and we find him wrapping up the case of a missing artifact that almost plunged 1934 Jerusalem into chaos (well slightly less than what it is today). Seeking a vacation from his day job, he tries to relax in Istanbul until he’s called to return to London to solve yet another case. Thankfully, he’s got a friend named Bouc (Tom Bateman) who manages the well regarded Orient Express and is able to book a ride on a fully booked train. On board he comes across a gangster (Johnny Depp), his secretary (Josh Gad), his butler (Derek Jacobi), an American widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), a princess (Judi Dench), a governess (Daisy Ridley), a doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a professor (Willem Dafoe), a missionary (Salma Hayek), a countess (Lucy Boynton), a count (Sergei Polunin), a cook (Olivia Colman), and a salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). One of these people winds up dead on the second day of the Express’ journey, and Bouc begs Poirot to use his genius mind and deduce the murderer. Thus begins one of Poirot’s strangest mysteries and realizes a dark connection between the murdered and the murderer.
While the plot adheres closer to other adaptations of this story, I really appreciated that a talented director like Branagh can add enough stylistic flourishes to making it feel fresh as opposed to rolling around in the original’s ball sweat. Solid camerawork combined with stellar production design are among the little things that could help a film separate itself from other adaptations (see every adaptation of A Christmas Carol ever). Helping everything along is the stellar acting on display with the all star cast that Branagh properly directs to make sure as many people besides him get a moment to shine.
My pick for MVP is easily Michelle Pfeiffer, giving a far heavier and complex performance than her cameo in mother! She brings the goods as Caroline Hubbard, the widow on this little journey of murder and delivers an eager character to chat up at storm, but is slow to reveal reasons she’s taking her trip across the European mountainside. Her back and forth against Branagh and other characters gave me plenty to like, but that’s also because Branagh gives her character plenty of attention in addition to a handful of characters.
Now granted I understood that for time constraints, the film could only dedicate time to about five or six characters instead of the full dozen suspects. This does mean that some people like Garcia-Rulfo, Hayek and even a heavy hitter like Dame Judi Dench don’t get as much screen time or even an opportunity to show off what they can do. Others like Willem Dafoe don’t appear to do anything special in the beginning, until the film turns and makes some intriguing revelations about his character. But you also have people like Johnny Depp, who despite being wife beating piece of shit (no I will not stop banging on how much a worthless stain on humanity he is), is still able to play a thoroughly despicable character well enough. Nonetheless, it’s slightly frustrating to have such a large cast and give them only bit roles, especially as I could tell there were several scenes missing from the final product in some transitions; but thankfully the film still has Branagh as your anchor for the entire production.
Having never seen a Hercule Poirot joint, I can’t tell you how he compares against other actors who have served in the role; but I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed his performance and would be totally fine if he returned for another adaptation of an Agatha Christie story. He demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of the character effortlessly to make you believe he’s a completely different person than the last time you saw him (which may be that forgettable Jack Ryan movie…I think?), and he does a lot of curious tics to communicate the fact he has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. See, unlike Guy Ritchie with the Sherlock Holmes films, Branagh doesn’t utilize weird edits or internal monologue to communicate how his detective thinks. Instead, he uses small quirks like refusing to eat breakfast unless everything is perfectly symmetrical and shoving a clean shoe into horseshit when the other was dirtied as well. It helps to communicate the fact that Poirot demands balance in all things, which contributes to the big emotional gut punch of an ending the film goes for.
And for the most part, the film is able to reach a great bittersweet conclusion that reflects Christie’s original work well. I did wish there was a bit more development with some of the suspects that are essential to muddying the waters as to who the true culprit was, but I think we would have had a three hour production that could have dragged way too damn long. As the film stands, it clocks in just under two hours to give you the most important details related to the murder mystery without wasting your time or making you check your watch. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if additional time could have filled in some of the blanks I had regarding this story to give a more complete experience.
As the film stands on its own, it’s easily worth a look see in theaters. I think Agatha Christie fans will find themselves pleasantly surprised, but for others like myself, this is worth a very strong…