Film & Television

Murder on the Orient Express : Classic Whodunnit is an Enjoyable Ride

It’s a mystery how some movies stand the test of time and others fade away. In 1974, for example, we saw (or, more likely, didn’t see) The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, Herbie Rides Again and Gone With the West (featuring James Caan and a young Stephanie Powers as a Native American, because … why not?).

But, that same year brought us Sidney Lumet’s masterful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. It was a great success (or as the director put it, a “light-hearted romp”) and earned six Oscar nominations. Except for the woefully dated opening credits — art deco lettering superimposed over bright pink satin — the movie not only holds up, it’s still every bit as entertaining as it was four decades ago.

Lumet assembled a star-studded cast that included legends Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Rachel Roberts, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Richard Widmark, Michael York, and Jacqueline Bisset. (Phew!) Agatha Christie’s brilliant, if sometimes vaguely misanthropic, mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot was portrayed with dramatic relish by Albert Finney.

Finney’s Poirot remains a tough act to follow. There are also fans who adamantly admire the Poirots of David Suchet (13 seasons of BBC’s eponymous Poirot), Peter Ustinov (1978’s Death on the Nile) and even Tony Randall (1965’s The Alphabet Murders). But, Kenneth Branagh has never been one to walk away from a challenge.

Known primarily for his excellent adaptations of Shakespeare (including Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and As You Like It), Branagh hails originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He studied at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and eventually was named its President. Like many of his British peers, he also made a memorable appearance in a Hogwart’s film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Most recently, Branagh directed Disney’s live-action Cinderella. He has the distinction of being the only person nominated for five Academy Awards in five different categories. He’s also no stranger to scandal. His marriage to Emma Thompson ended after six years and a high-profile love affair with his costar Helena Bonham Carter.

Branagh directs the new version of Murder on the Orient Express and stars as Hercule Poirot. In his hands, the famous sleuth is part genius, part action hero. He has an emotional backstory and boards the luxurious train world-weary and eager to rest. But, you can rest assured, the infamous mustache is very much in evidence.

Christie described her Poirot’s most familiar feature as “The most magnificent mustache in England.” And in this new adaptation, Branagh took that description very seriously. Many critics, in fact, think he took it a little too seriously, and I expected to be confronted with a comically furry face. However, I quickly got used to it (reportedly, the film’s cast took time to get used to it too). “We knew Poirot’s mustache was a sort of critical visual and a chance to mark this as a new departure,” explains Branagh. “It is his superpower. It’s his people-tester: Why would you take that guy seriously? And then suddenly he’s got you by the throat.”

The concept of Hurcule Poirot as “super hero” is new and at times gets in the way of Christie’s marvelously intricate but neatly resolved story. Early on, I worried that the new Orient Express might be closer to James Bond or The Kingsmen than I would like. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) have added a prologue, a wild chase, a gunshot wound, and a dramatically staged climax — perhaps to satisfy the contemporary audience’s need for action and special effects, or maybe to attract younger viewers.

Some of the casting seems to have been strategically planned to do the same. With lovely Daisy Ridley as a former governess, Branagh may have hoped to capture the enormous fan base of the new Star Wars films. Similarly, Tony-winner Leslie Odom, Jr. as a doctor is a draw for legions of Hamilton fans as well as adding some much-needed diversity to the ensemble. Both actors are first-rate though, so any additional box office they may generate is merely a bonus.

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