Murder on the Orient Express (2017, Dir. Kenneth Branagh):
“I regret Monsieur,” Poirot said at length, “that I cannot oblige you.”
The other looked at him shrewdly. “Name your figure then,” he said.
Poirot shook his head.
“You do not understand, Monsieur. I have been very fortunate in my profession. I have made enough money to satisfy both my needs and my caprices. I take now only such cases as–interest me.”
“You’ve got a pretty good nerve,” said Ratchett. “Will twenty thousand dollars tempt you?”
Poirot rose. “If you will forgive me for being personal–I do not like your face, Mr. Ratchett,” he said.
And with that he left the restaurant car.
— Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
Getting the obvious question out of the way first: Why? Why yet another remake of a murder mystery written way back in the fusty thirties, by a writer who isn’t known for her sparkling prose or memorable characters? To answer the question is to explain the allure of Dame Agatha Christie. The solutions to her puzzle-box mysteries were often preposterous (and often involved an aristocratic killer masquerading as the hired help), but to sink into a Christie book is akin to slipping into a warm cup of cocoa, and to be eased back into an age where drawing-room manners and Continental glamor held sway. Like a good host, Christie knew how to provide us with just enough of what we needed: a dollop of stiff upper-lip Brit humor, a few clever twists of plot, and a touch, just a touch, of the dangerous. And who can resist a whodunit, anyway? The recent Sherlock Holmes revival and the longevity of the procedural mystery (everything from Murder she Wrote to Broadchurch) are proof positive that we’re still susceptible to the thrill of the baffling crime, the way the various pieces of a plot click together, the final reckonings of evildoers and victims.
Murder on the Orient Express might not be Christie’s most surprising work (for this writer’s money, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is still the one to beat), but its exotic Eastern European locales and the glitz of its international cast of characters make it one of her classiest, and perhaps the easiest to transpose to a cinematic context. Baby boomers have fond memories of the 1974 Sidney Lumet version; while not as sumptuous as one might hope (Lumet was always more at home with street-smart wisecracks than with urbane repartee), it remains a tasty treat with an unimpeachable cast (Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, and Vanessa Redgrave, just to name a few). Modern audiences will no doubt trumpet the 2010 made-for-TV version, starring David Suchet as virtually everyone’s favorite incarnation of detective Hercule Poirot. Sadly, the Suchet Express is a pinched, joyless affair; determined to invest Poirot with a character arc, and appeal to audience members desiring something more than just frothy mystery, the filmmakers cram the story with existential doom and heavy-handed moral dilemmas, which is akin to weighing down Christie’s genteel little tray of tea and crumpets with a bag of rocks.
Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 version, perhaps not surprisingly, decides to split the difference between those two productions. Branagh is a fan of old-school dramatics — his underrated Dead Again (1991) is basically a valentine to Hollywood filmmaking circa 1945 — but as a canny Shakespearean, he’s eager to dive into the psychology of his characters. His performance as Poirot is both flamboyant (check out those ridiculous mustaches!) and studied, taking its cues from the maladjusted sleuths that are the current rage. Always a fussy and eccentric sort, the Belgian detective is now presented as pathological in his hang-ups; when he accidentally steps in animal poop, he places his other foot right in the shit, so the effect is evened out. “Imperfection stands out like a nose in the middle of the face,” he sighs. “It makes life unbearable.” Like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, his idiosyncrasies make him a terror to be around and a force to be reckoned with. And just to ensure that he won’t be confused with Poirots of the past, he carries around a photograph of a mysterious former lover named Katherine (a totally non-canon move), and even engages in some modest chases and fisticuffs.
The 2017 Express also wants to recapture some of the starriness of the 1974 movie with its big-name cast and far-flung locales. With a central cast of over a dozen, the challenge of any version of this tale is to give the actors enough room to strut without derailing the plot’s progress. Screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner: 2049) struggles to throw in enough bits of business to allow everyone a turn in the spotlight, but a few inevitably shine brighter than the others. As the rich widow on a “husband hunt,” Michelle Pfeiffer is a gas, and Johnny Depp, dialing it down yet hamming it up as a gangster with a shadowy past, has the most fun. Their single shared scene drips with lust and loathing, and is this remake’s best argument for existence. “Eyes linger any longer, I’ll have to charge rent,” she quips when he ogles her. “I’ll pay,” he retorts with a smile on his lips and the dead stare of a hunter in his eyes. Other standouts include Josh Gad, squirming away as Depp’s alcoholic secretary; Daisy Ridley as a plucky (if a bit youngish) governess; Willem Dafoe, playing around with a Teutonic accent as a professor; and Derek Jacobi, adding a touch of pathos as a manservant dying of cancer. Unfortunately, other luminaries like Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Leslie Odom Jr., and Penélope Cruz are stranded on the sidelines. Branagh throws in his usual share of stylistic flourishes, some of which work better than others. Characters are filmed through mirrored glass, as if we’re seeing two sides of a story (an appropriate metaphor for the story’s many deceptions), we’re treated to some impressive vistas, and the film’s final image, a triptych set at a snowy station, has an unfussy loveliness. On the demerit side, we’re treated to some jarring CGI (the story is kickstarted when the train is halted by an avalanche, but is it really necessary to see the actual avalanche in its computer-generated glory?), and the discovery of a body is filmed from above the discoverers’ heads and without even a glimpse of the body, depriving the scene of any kind of jolt.
While Green follows the course of Christie’s novel, he’s not meticulous enough as a plotter to make all the pieces fit together in a pleasing manner. (Many mystery fans will find their individual nits to pick — I wonder why they changed the bit about the voice speaking in French, which in its new context makes little sense.) The best mysteries tighten their grip even when the clues pile up in bewildering fashion; the revelations in the 2017 Express come fast and furious, like the final rounds of a game of Clue, but you’ll likely end up more confused than satisfied. Branagh tries opening up the narrative by staging interviews and confrontations both within and without the train; in doing so, he loses the claustrophobia that livened up earlier versions. Christie always understood that for her puzzle boxes to work, the audience had to be ensnared in the process, actively guessing to the end (naturally, she also wrote a play called Mousetrap). Thanks to the muddled plotting, Branagh can’t generate that same interest. Instead, he decides to go for the Shakespearean jugular, with Poirot getting a soliloquy (“Sometimes the law of man is not enough”) that steals lines and intimations of mortality from Christie’s final Poirot book Curtain. Likewise, the climax features plenty of tears, shouting and even a “to be or not to be” confrontation with the killer(s). The literary Poirot was always obsessed with order, which dovetailed with the audience’s obsession to solve the case. The lachrymose finish of Branagh’s Express abandons order for overheated opera.
Overall this Express is more like an ambling local train, taking its own sweet time on its way to a nondescript destination. Branagh himself has stated that he would love to tackle a remake of Death on the Nile as his next Poirot project — if it comes to pass, he would do well to heed the words of Poirot’s friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), who accuses the detective of being wrapped up “in books and capers.” Being obsessed with books and capers might seem antiquated to some, but the enjoyment of a good bookish whodunit never fades.