Both Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, an old lady who happens to solve murders as a hobby, and Hercule Poirot, a very self-opinionated Belgian private detective, have become cult figures over time. It is therefore not surprising that many movies have been made from Christie’s crime novels – her book “Murder on the Orient Express”, which was published in 1934, has served as a movie basis four times, the latest film being the one by Kenneth Branagh which came out this year.
The plot is textbook Agatha Christie: It gathers a pool of possible suspects in a closed-off space and has her Belgian detective interrogate them and gather clues one by one. After having completed yet another case, Hercule Poirot is headed back to London. He manages to get on the fully booked Orient Express from Istanbul to Calais with thirteen apparent strangers – thanks to the help of his friend Monsieur Bouc, who works as the director of the train line. When one of the passengers is brutally murdered during one night of the train journey and the train tracks are blocked by a snowdrift, Monsieur Bouc begs Poirot to investigate. He does so in his own world-renowned way: with a superior smirk, using psychology and his knowledge of human nature in order to catch the murderer everyone knows only he will be able to expose.
Kenneth Branagh’s movie shows just that, but so many other movies have done the same thing before. So, being a director, if you want to make yet another movie out of a novel which has already been used as a film basis as many times as this one, you’d want it to stand out. In order to fulfill that task, the film was shot on 70mm, allowing beautiful widescreen pictures of Istanbul, Jerusalem and the Balkans. The graphics and effects are very realistic, and Branagh gets some nice shots of the Orient Express from above and many great close-ups of the characters during their interrogation, making each one of the suspects look as sketchy as possible. But however lovely the camera movement is, it seems like Branagh was so taken with the idea of his movie having to become a blockbuster that he employs these techniques way too much throughout the film.
Also, to fulfill blockbuster criteria, Branagh has assembled a star cast including Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and Michelle Pfeiffer. The first movie by Sidney Lumet, which was released in 1974 and became a major success, brought together icons such as Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Ingrid Bergman, who even received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance of the Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson. And even though in this movie, Depp, Dench and Pfeiffer are very good – just like you’d expect – the supporting actors are completely unremarkable due to their tragic under-utilization. Judi Dench barely even says three sentences, and almost no actor apart from Kenneth Branagh himself seems to get more than five minutes of screen time.
Branagh plays the star of the story, detective Hercule Poirot, whom avid readers of the books will have perceived as a brilliant yet quite comical man, who is very fond of himself but at the same time always remains a highly likeable figure, his distinctive feature being his well-groomed mustache. Sadly, the Poirot we get to know in this movie is nothing like the man in the books, who rather stays in the background, while carefully observing the suspects and their actions. Indeed, the only thing Branagh kept from the original Poirot is the mustache, which he turns into ridicule by covering half of his face with it.
In the movie, from the moment he is introduced – in a scene that shows him fastidiously complaining about the imperfection of his eggs – until the very end, he remains a charmless, judgy egoist who just gets on everybody’s nerves by being way too moral and accusing everyone of lying to him. Unlike the Poirot we remember as portrayed by Peter Ustinov in several movies, this one resembles an action hero rather than a fuzzy perfectionist, chasing after potential suspects on train tracks.
Of course, this could all be forgiven if the movie didn’t focus far too much on Branagh’s performance as Poirot, therefore being unable to succeed in producing tension similar to the kind of atmosphere Christie was so good at creating. Everything in the story just happens too fast, and multiple pointless scenes of Branagh dramatically staring at a picture of his bygone Catherine who has nothing to do with the plot and who is never mentioned again just unnecessarily string the movie out. Murder on the Orient Express is not a bad movie in itself; it just feels too self-indulgent and dramatic at times. However, for those who have not read the book or seen the first movie, it may be pleasant to watch.