True Confession: While I’m known for science fiction, my first love is mysteries. So, of course, I’ve read Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot books. But I know not to compare a book to a movie – the book almost always wins. However, the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express is one of my all-time favorites. I re-watched it a couple of days prior to seeing this remake. All the better to enjoy what Kenneth Branagh – and actor and director I normally really enjoy – does with it!
What he does with it is prove that while his “moustaches” are the best, otherwise he’s no Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, or David Suchet – all of whom have portrayed Poirot on screen, and all of whom have done a better job with the role. In this case as well, Branagh is no Sidney Lumet, who directed the 1974 version, which still stands up today and is, frankly, a far better movie than this one.
But first, the recap. True to form, Poirot (Branagh) is – for any criminals in all of his cases – in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case, on a train heading from Istanbul to Calais. Poirot is the greatest detective of his time, and, as the film opener, we see him solve a case in Jerusalem. Poirot is requested in London due to a different, ongoing case, so, thanks to his friend Bouc (the quite wonderful Tom Bateman), he’s able to get onto the Orient Express in first class, garnering the last berth available.
During the trip he meets the rest of the passengers in first class, one of them is murdered, and therefore all the rest of them are suspects. As Poirot digs deeper, everyone who seemingly should be strangers to each other and the murder victim all seem related in some way, and Poirot has to ferret out who’s done it and why.
Christie’s plot is based on the real-life Lindberg Baby Kidnapping, with names and a few other minor details changed. That event happened in 1932, and the movie is set in the 1930’s. Even in 1974, people didn’t have that case foremost in their minds, but it didn’t matter, because, in the 1974 version, the opening scenes, shown while we’re seeing credits, show you all the “newspapers” discussing the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Daisy Armstrong, the toddler heiress. You know, before you ever see the train, that what’s going to come next has something to do with this child’s kidnapping and murder.
However, the 2017 movie chooses not to do that. Instead, we get a lot of “Well you know, Bob” dialogue so that Poirot can explain to the audience what’s going on, filtered through in random places that don’t clarify and, often, confuse.
Characters were altered somewhat. For some, this is great. For some, it makes zero difference. For others, it makes their characters completely uneven. There’s “action” that’s needless, “danger” that’s needless, and a lot of Poirot talking to a picture of a dead love that’s incredibly needless (though, apparently, the filmmakers felt it was vital that we all know that Poirot is straight). What was needed was Poirot acting like Poirot – fussy, knowledgeable, determined. Not whining about his confusion and fretting about what to do.
Branagh also took a page out of Steven Soderbergh’s book and did several odd camera angles. The ones where the viewer gets to see the scene by looking from above, at the tops of the actors’ heads, are particularly poor choices. We never see the actors’ faces, and we never see what it is that they see. We just see the tops of their heads. This serves to pull the viewer out of the movie and also give the impression not that the characters are on a real train, but that the sets were poorly made.
But the acting saves it, right? Not really. The role of Mrs. Hudson, played by Lauren Bacall in the 1974 film and by Michelle Pfeiffer in this version, is a key one. Bacall was ballsy, Pfeiffer is weirdly kittenish. Pfeiffer is brittle, where Bacall was steel. Steel worked better for the character. I could make these comparisons for every character in the movie, and, sadly, all of the characters in the 2017 version pale next to those from 1974.
There is product placement that jars (I have no idea if Godiva chocolates existed in the 1930’s, but Godiva presumably paid a lot for me to stare at their brand name for quite a long time in a scene), there are modern elements that jar (for example, the Count is a ballet dancing ninja – and you think I’m making that up but I’m not), and there is no actual wit in this movie.
The filmmakers really wanted to make this movie “different” from the other versions that have come before. But every choice feels like the wrong one, from our droopy Poirot to the ridiculous seating of the suspects in a Last Supper pose. The movie is stagey and overwrought in the wrong places, undertoned and dull in far too many others. And being dull is the worst offense.
Someone in the theater I was at said that no one knows the book or the other movies these days (I guarantee they’re wrong about the book – Murder on the Orient Express has never been out of print since the day it was published) but, if that’s true, then why jump through hoops and make changes just to be “different” from the others? Follow the excellent plot already laid out by a master of her craft, and just let the great costumes, sets, cinematography, and acting make it different.
The real crime? In their desperate attempt to “surprise” the audience, the filmmakers, and particularly the director, Branagh, made a convoluted, confusing, mediocre mystery out of one of the best mysteries out there.
Rating: 2 stars
What starts out as a lavish train ride through Europe quickly unfolds into one of the most stylish, suspenseful and thrilling mysteries ever told. From the novel by best-selling author Agatha Christie, “Murder on the Orient Express” tells the tale of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. One man must race against time to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again. Kenneth Branagh directs and leads an all-star cast including Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad.
Cast: Tom Bateman, Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay by: Michael Green
Based upon the Novel by: Agatha Christie