Film & Television

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

The entire cast is marvelous, if somewhat in the shadow of their 1974 counterparts. Michelle Pfeiffer shines in the role of Bacall’s brazen American divorcee Mrs. Hubbard. Penelope Cruz is appropriately pious as the missionary Bergman played earlier. Josh Gad brings a different flavor to Perkins’s personal secretary, while Derek Jacobi is the proper successor to Gielgud’s butler. Dame Judi Dench is divine as Princess Dragomiroff as is Olivia Colman (soon to replace Claire Foy as an older Elizabeth in The Crown as her German maid Hildegarde. Other stars include Johnny Depp as the evil (and ill-fated) Ratchett, and Willem Dafoe as a racist Austrian professor.

If you’re familiar with Lumet’s film (I saw it when I was twelve but can still quote lines verbatim), you’ll notice that many of the characters have changed slightly. A colonel there becomes a doctor here; someone’s daughter has become the new version of that someone’s sister. But, by and large, the characters, their myriad aliases, and the deliciously twisted way that their backstories connect and overlap remain true. In fact, keeping track of all the revelations (and comparing and contrasting to the earlier film if you’re so inclined) is a big part of what makes Murder on the Orient Express such a fun ride.

In addition to some of the action sequences I mentioned earlier, I really only had two issues with the new film. First, mustached or not, Poirot himself borders a bit on the cartoon. I have no doubt that Branagh thoroughly researched and rehearsed the Belgian accent. But, some of his delivery reminded me a bit of Mandy Patinkin in Princess Bride (“You killed my father, prepare to die.”), which makes very little sense given that Patinkin played a Spaniard. My husband, on the other hand, remarked that Branagh’s accent reminded him of Inspector Clouseau. Alas, neither comparison bodes well. Branagh himself wanted to elevate the material in his version. “I wanted this to be more of a brood on the hows and whys of disguising and hiding and channeling pain. Once we understand who and how and why, the interesting moral coda, if you like, was: And now what? What is justice? Where does conscience lie here?”

Accents aside, the end of the movie is more complicated than it needs to be. In the earlier film, Lumet had Poirot explain his conclusions to the passengers/suspects in the train’s elegantly appointed first-class sitting room. As he recounts the murder, we see it in flashback, shot linearly and literally (and eerily from close to the victim’s perspective). In addition to including a rather surreal murder scene, which is violent and a bit shocking but not as satisfying, Branagh has added an impromptu courtroom set-up (over-art directed to look like daVinci’s “Last Supper”) in a train tunnel. He exposes the truth about each suspect and then dares them to keep him silent. The extra scene affords some juicy dramatic bits for the cast (Pfeiffer in particular pulls out all the stops), but it’s villainously over-the-top. Part of the fun of Agatha Christie (especially for us “Yanks”) is how even the most gruesome crimes stay so very very civilized.

Despite these grievances, I heartily recommend Murder on the Orient Express. It’s a stylish piece of period fun. In fact, I left the theater with two items on my “To Do” list. First, book a trip for myself on the real Orient Express. Second, rent and rewatch the 1974 movie. Happily, that latter option was well within my budget.

With his enjoyable if not perfect Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh appears to have launched a lucrative new franchise for himself. At the end of the new film, as Poirot leaves the train, he is whisked away to Egypt. Because, as an official tells him ominously, “There’s been a death on the nile.”

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