Adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” Doesn’t Quite Kill It

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Natalie Riopelle, Arts Editor

Agatha Christie, the “Queen of Mystery” and the author of dozens of novels and short stories, is purported to be the third best-selling author in history, following Shakespeare and the Bible. Her stories are known for their suspense, their recognizable detectives and, most crucially, their ability to time and again leave the reader surprised by their endings. Of these detectives, Hercule Poirot has most entranced the public, and it is he (played by Kenneth Branagh) who takes center stage in the recent remake of “Murder on the Orient Express,” released in early November. Fictional detective Hercule Poirot’s rise to prominence occurred during Christie’s lifetime and has clearly maintained strength even after her death in 1976. Poirot stars in 33 of Christie’s novels, as well as a whole host of her short stories. The private detective, a former officer in the Belgian police force, conducts his investigations meticulously and compulsively with an ego surpassing even the size of his illustrious “moustache”— a man known for being just as clever as his head is round.

“Murder on the Orient Express” recounts a train ride taken by Poirot across Europe on the ritzy, glitzy and exorbitantly expensive Orient Express. On the train with him are a slew of interestingsorts: a professor, a doctor, and even a princess among them. Although temporarily derailed by snowy, mountainous terrain, all is calm aboard the Orient Express until the train awakens to find that one of its passengers has been murdered. Trapped aboard a train far from the nearest station,
the remaining passengers are likewise trapped with the knowledge that where there is a murder, there is also a murderer. It is Poirot who must bring that murderer to justice.

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as Poirot in 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” a remake released decades after the 1974 original (starring Albert Finney), but not so long after the acclaimed 2010 version made for the TV series, “Agatha Christie’s Poirot,” starring David Suchet as the Belgian detective. For many, these two actors, Finney and Suchet, came to be the actual embodiment
of Poirot—particularly Suchet who spent over a decade portraying him on TV. Small and portly with mustaches housing enough grease to fry a frozen burger, both Finney and Suchet’s Poirot were just as Christie had described. Branagh’s Poirot, however, does not adhere quite as strongly to the source material.

While Branagh may not be stupendously tall at 5 feet 10, he is certainly not short, nor is he particularly rotund or reminiscent of an egg as Poirot is constantly described to be. However, given the aforementioned discrepancies between character and actor, in an apparent attempt to make up for Branagh’s lack of short stature and portliness, the mustache Branagh sports as Poirot was magnified into nothing short of a spectacle. Draping from his upper lip to his ears, the mustache’s sheer improbability was in danger of drowning out Branagh’s considerable star power. At the very least, whenever Branagh’s Poirot was on the screen (almost always) the same question appeared with him: How in the world can that mustache be accepted as real?

Despite the mammoth mustache, the film itself is visually beautiful. Shot in Malta, New Zealand and France, among other places, “The Orient Express” presents gleaming vistas as well as the enviable lavishness of the studio train’s interior. Colors radiated off of the screen at points, making the moments without color, moments of fear and of peril, that much more striking. Cinematographically, the film delights, but, as with any movie, not everything can be a delight.

The pacing of “Murder on the Orient Express” befuddles. Opening in Jerusalem for reasons unrelated to the film’s plot, the movie takes its time explaining to the audience why Poirot came to be on the train in the first place. It feels like half an hour before Poirot finally even enters a train car — bear in mind that the movie is itself two hours long. The movie doesn’t jump out of the gate; it limps. Each introduction to each of the numerous characters comes in quick snippets, spaced with no apparent rhyme or reason, so that, when the murder occurs, it feels as if we haven’t even had time to remember who’s who, let alone dive into their potential motives.

That is perhaps the supreme difficulty in translating Christie’s work to the silver screen: the sheer number of characters. Christie has the luxury of an entire book to craft when each character appears as well as pages to devote to their descriptions—movies have no such luxury. Yet, character introduction is no less important in films than in books; if anything, it is more important, because viewing audiences cannot simply flip back to a prior page to reacquaint themselves with a character.

And “Murder on the Orient Express” houses a formidable, and famous, cast of characters: no less than 13 potential suspects, utilizing the acting talents of Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer, among others. Sadly, this troupe of interesting characters played by interesting actors are doomed to become one muddled soup of people the audience doesn’t know well enough to care about. Even Poirot is held at a distance from the audience, despite Branagh’s attempts at humanizing the aloof and indefatigable detective with bouts of crying and an inserted backstory of lost love. A portion of Poirot’s charm, perhaps, is his unknowability. The detective is himself a mystery. A man gifted with a meticulous mind and so many “little grey cells.” But the Poirot in Branagh’s film, while slightly more relatable, lacks the mystery that Poirot often carries with him. He is just a man with a silly mustache and an almost passable French accent. “Murder on the Orient Express” is not a masterpiece, nor even as good as its 1974 predecessor, but is not terrible by any means. Maybe if the 1974 original or even the television version from 2010 did not cast such long shadows, audiences could simply lean back and enjoy the beautiful cinematography and the promise of a shocking ending. But alas, when watching the weakest of “The Orient Express” adaptations, they simply cannot.