Adapting Murder on the Orient Express in 2017 presents a problem almost as perplexing as the mystery that famous fictional detective Hercule Poirot faced in the original novel.
The book, by legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie (the most widely published author of all time), was originally released in 1934. Since its first days in print, the novel has become a classic, and one of Christie’s best-known works. It gained notoriety for its wickedly clever plot and infamous twist ending, one that made the book a permanent part of pop culture history.
The novel has previously been adapted for the screen three times: in 1974 by Sidney Lumet, in 2010 as part of the David Suchet led Poirot series, and in 2001, in a terrible made for television feature starring Alfred Molina. So how, in 2017, does one create a new film adaptation of this iconic story, with a twist ending that most people already know, and still make it feel interesting and fresh? Well, like an eccentric detective who’s put together all the clues and identified the culprit to what seems like a perfect crime, film thespian Kenneth Branagh has the answer with his adaptation—despite some minor hiccups along the way, this train ride is dazzling entertainment.
There’s little point in explaining the plot of the film; you either already know it or, if you’re lucky enough to remain unspoiled, should head in with as little detail as possible—or better yet, read the novel first.
Even though the plot stays faithful to Christie’s original, there are some changes made to the story which are, overall, very effective. There are some simplifications, especially in its second act (which is constituted in the novel solely of Poirot interviewing the 12 suspects), in order to keep the movie rolling along. The film does an admirable job of tightening this part of the narrative and keeping it engaging without losing too many crucial details. There are a few moments and minor plot points from the novel that are cut, which may raise a few questions for viewers who haven’t read the book. For the most part, however, everything flows along nicely.
Beyond the small omissions from the source material, there are also some minor changes that don’t work, in particular, the addition of a lost love in Poirot’s past. At several points in the film, he pines over a photograph of a woman named Katherine, but it’s never explained who she is, or what her connection to Poirot is—she’s certainly no Vera Rossakoff (his love interest in a few of Christie’s works). Every time Poirot stops to look longingly at the old photograph, it feels like the film grinds to a halt. It adds nothing to the narrative and would have been better left on the cutting room floor.
Branagh’s Poirot is also more fit and agile than other incarnations—there’s even a short chase scene! Some Christie purists may take issue with the film’s small bits of added action scenes, but they are minimal, and serve to give Poirot a more active role in the story. Yes, there’s no real action of any sort in the novel, but there doesn’t need to be. Christie’s works are perfectly effective in having Poirot simply talk to people and think, then reveal his conclusions, but on the screen that would be far less engaging. However, it’s not as radical a departure as Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, which transform the detective into more of an action star. Here the filmmakers have added a few small bursts of excitement to make sure things don’t get too dull, and the film is better for that.
Where the movie makes its most effective changes is in it’s re-worked climax. The film expands upon the original’s denouement and allows the emotion of the story to really play out, whereas the novel’s ending feels a little too quick, almost truncated. It’s one of the rare occasions where an adaptation improves upon its inspiration.
The movie has an all-star cast for the ages, featuring Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Johnny Depp, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Olivia Colman, Branagh himself as Poirot, and some sort of small furry creature as Poirot’s mustache.
While it’s a large ensemble, much of the film belongs to Branagh and his facial pet. Poirot is a great character, but in the shadow of David Suchet’s perfect performance as the Belgian sleuth (the ITV series adapted every single one of Christie’s novels featuring the character, and Suchet simply was Poirot), Branagh had huge shoes to fill. Despite the challenge the role presents, he’s excellent. His performance remains authentic to the detective’s core characteristics from Christie’s works—an insistence on identical eggs for breakfast, a supreme distaste for murder and deception, a constant need for order and method—while still making the role his own. Branagh is particularly effective with Poirot’s comedic moments, adding levity to what is otherwise a very sad story. It’s also worth noting that he sounds like Poirot should, with an accent that’s believable and not overblown or ridiculous.
The mustache, however, really is something else. It inspires both terror—as if it may come alive, jump off his face, and attack you—and jealousy—to be able to grow a piece of facial hair that resplendent…one can only dream. Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, it’s certainly memorable, taking up enough screen space to feel like a genuine supporting character. It also feels like it may be an attempt to make this version of the character unique, by giving him a distinct visual signature. It’s a bit over the top, but it’s certainly not easy to forget, so perhaps that alone means it’s successful.
The rest of the cast is incredible; there’s not a weak link among them. None of the performers overplay their roles and steal the scenes from their co-stars (except for maybe Poirot’s mustache). It’s an excellent example of a large cast of big names working well as an ensemble with everyone well-suited for their characters. Specific standouts include Ridley, who has excellent rapport with Branagh, Gad, who excels in a role that’s far from the comedic relief he’s often cast as, Dench, who, magnificent as ever, has a wonderful presence and balances emotion and humour with aplomb, and Pfeiffer, who’s a highlight of virtually every project she’s in, and really gives everything she can to her role.
It’s also worth noting that the film’s cast is much more diverse than the novel’s all white group of characters, and it’s nice to see the filmmakers make efforts to create a more inclusive version of the story.
But what makes the film such a pleasure to watch, even more than the cast, is its awe-inspiring cinematography. From sweeping shots of snow covered mountains to overhead tracking shots inside the luxury train, Christie’s story has never looked this beautiful. So much of the film’s action takes place in one small location, but cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, never lets that restrict the camera. Each scene is well conceived and the whole film is stunning.
Branagh has expressed hope that if this film is successful, it will lead to the creation of a Poirot series with other adaptations of Christie’s novels. Given how well his new Orient Express film works, the prospect of more Branagh-centric Poirot films is an appealing one.
(Featured Image: Murder on the Orient Express, 20th Century Fox)