On the first of January, 1934, Agatha Christie published Murder on the Orient Express. The book was the tenth in the ongoing adventures of Hercule Poirot, the private detective. Christie’s books were always a resounding success, but Murder on the Orient Express proved to be an extraordinarily skillful outing for Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells. At the time of the book’s release, the New York Times Book Review wrote
“The great Belgian detective’s guesses are more than shrewd; they are positively miraculous. Although both the murder plot and the solution verge upon the impossible, Agatha Christie has contrived to make them appear quite convincing for the time being, and what more than that can a mystery addict desire?”
What more, indeed. This brief description of Christie’s book goes a long way to summarizing the film as well. The whole thing seems at first impossible. But in fact, it is quite real, and positively miraculous.
Little can be said about this, the greatest of all murder mystery stories, which others have not already said. Indeed that is perhaps the most significant knock against the film. Kenneth Branagh’s version of the film is the fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famous mystery. This, newest, vision could hardly be a reimagining, as it adds little to the original story.
For fans of Agatha Christie’s book, or of the 13 season show Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express will ring utterly true. Every beat of the mystery matches wonderfully with the promises of Christie’s detective stories: murder is committed, there are multiple suspects who all conceal secrets, these secrets are slowly uncovered by the detective who discovers a shocking twist along the way. Then, in the end, the detective gathers up all the principal cast and explains everything. Calling Murder on the Orient Express formulaic is like calling a murder itself violent: that is, a bit, the point.
Unlike recent versions of Sherlock Holmes, like those imagined by Guy Ritchie or Steven Moffat, Branagh’s iteration of Murder on the Orient Express does not bastardize its source material to cater to modern audiences. Hurclue Poirot is a particular kind of man with a specific sensibility. This telling of Murder on the Orient Express, which opens with a beautiful vignette introducing the character and his methods, is outstanding.
Murder on the Orient Express features Kenneth Branagh doing double duty as both star and director. Branagh is known for directing adaptations. His filmography encompasses the works of William Shakespeare, as well as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Cinderella, and Thor. Working within the as well worn territory of Murder on the Orient Express, therefore, puts Branagh well within his directorial wheelhouse.
The film never feels over-directed. Though, it wouldn’t with the all-star cast it has touted throughout production. Nevertheless, a few of Branagh’s decisions from behind the camera manage to shine an even brighter spotlight on the cast. The geography of the train itself is beautiful. The rustic, yet industrial, feel of the train cars in which the story unfolds gives the entire drama a feeling of absolute importance. Nothing is plastic in this film. There is a heft to absolutely everything onboard the train. And the way Branagh directs his camera and cast through the narrow corridors and elegant dining cars magnify this heft to bring it into full-on reality.
The most obvious draw of the film is the cast. Murder on the Orient Express boasts six
Academy Award Nominees, including Award Winners Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench. With a principal cast of 11 suspects, two members of the train’s staff, and titular detective, it would be easy for the film (and the train) to begin feeling cramped in a hurry.
In a smart move, many of the scenes focus on only one or two of the suspects. This gives each actor a fantastic opportunity to flex their strengths. A few of the actor’s plots are given more attention than the others. But none of the cast ever feels absent. Between the close quarters and the short timeline, everything feels imminent.
Each of the many characters feels like one kind of archetypal style or another. Whether through character beats, lines of dialogue, or costuming, this positively massive cast becomes a group of individuals. Keeping characters, motives, and secrets organized is as easy as if the audience were on the train themselves. The whole thing could have been an absolute mess. But thanks to Branaugh’s smart direction and sound acting choices by a veteran cast, the workload on the little grey cells is a light one.
The most apparent high point of the film is the production design. The costuming, the scenery, and the food scattered throughout the film are all flawless. Even outside of the train, the bustling city centers of Jerusalem and Istanbul are beautifully rendered. Poirot is a meticulous and particular man. Theart departments working on Murder on the Orient Express must have been equally accurate to create such a magnificent world.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a thinking man who does not approve of murder. His little grey cells are always at the ready to solve any mystery. Where others see complicated, even impossible cases, Hercule Poirot sees puzzles he must answer. In many ways, this makes him the perfect detective. In others, however, it makes him a character antithetical to modern sensibility in almost every way.
Murder on the Orient Express is a great interpretation of the classic murder mystery. The film, which sets itself up in its final moments as the first in a forthcoming series, is a welcome change of pace. Modern detective stories have been engineered for modern audiences to be fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, action adventures.
Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is a cure of the modern detective story. The film is methodically paced without being slow. Branagh has reproduced a mystery of thought, not of action, yet has managed to make it just as interesting and exciting as any action-packed summer blockbuster.
The fact that Hercule Poirot is headlining the weekend between the releases of Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League seems impossible. But Kenneth Branagh has devised a way to make a Poirot series of films seem quite convincing, for the time being. And what more than that can a mystery addict desire?