Kudos go to Kenneth Branagh, as the actor/director faced a tough challenge given that the original ‘Murder on the Orient Express‘ is such a memorable film with Agatha Christie’s twisty murder mystery much analyzed over throughout the years, and for the most part the new version is a very game effort. But the biggest issues for the movie come in the comparisons to past editions as well as serving up enough meat for the wealth of talent to chew.
Much of the film remains faithful to what many may remember, but Branagh and Michael Green, who provided the screenplay, do take some liberties in order to put their stamp on this popular work, including an ending that offers a fresh take on the personality and motivations of the meticulous inspector.
For those unaware of the original, the story centers on the brilliant but weary detective longing for a vacation, but getting pulled back into action and hitching a ride aboard the Orient Express, where the seemingly diverse occupants are soon caught up in a murder mystery when one of the passengers is murdered. Poirot is portrayed as a detective whose biggest asset and annoyance is the inequality of life, always seeking to find a perfect balance down to his OCD fascination with the straightening of ties.
The motley crew includes the slithery arts dealer Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who unsuccessfully attempts to hire Poirot when receiving a threatening message. He’s accompanied by his sketchy accountant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and manservant Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi). Ratchett has a brief flirtation with Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), a widowed woman initially believed to be husband hunting. Other passengers aboard the Express include a violent count and his ailing countess (Sergie Polunin and Lucy Boynton), a haughty princess (Judi Dench) and her faithful servant (Olivia Colman), a German professor (Willem Dafoe), a seemingly altruistic doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), a slick car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an astute governess (Daisy Ridley), and a missionary with a troubled past (Penelope Cruz). Others aboard the train include the conductor (Marwan Kenzari) and Poirot’s confidant and the train’s concierge Bouc (Tom Bateman).
As Poirot settles in for a night’s slumber, he’s continually awakened by commotions in the hallway, each of which garner his attention, but also serve as a distraction for the murder that is about to happen. Add in an avalanche that stalls the train, and Poirot has a captive audience as he’s asked by Bouc to investigate. One by one, Poirot questions each of the passengers, discerning their potential motives and soon uncovering that the murder has little to do with the initial motive and that each of the strangers are attempting to cover any possible ties or motives to the real reason for the murder.
While Branagh does a stellar job of playing Poirot and has one of the more meaty roles in the film, one of the big downfalls is that the characters don’t all feel fleshed out. Ridley’s keen yet secretive Mary Debenham, Odom’s loyal Dr. Arbuthnot, Pfeiffer’s dramatic Caroline Hubbard and Gad’s nervous Hector MacQueen all get their due, but the remainder of the cast seemingly have little to do or say within the film’s just under two-hour runtime. Even for the brilliant Poirot, it feels as though he summizes several characters rather quickly while the viewer never really gets more than a cursory glance at their true nature.
But while the screenplay fails some of its actors, Branagh and his crew have done a great job of recreating the period and the look of the film from costuming to set design is top notch. After a bit of a slow start, the film does pick up and latter portion of the movie really offers an interesting whodunnit. For those who have not witnessed the previous editions, the new Murder on the Orient Express will keep you engaged with an interesting finale that paints the Poirot that movie buffs know in a fresh way. For those aware of the past versions, it’s still a passable and enjoyable film and different enough to make it worth viewing, but it’s still hard to match such a classic.