Kenneth Branagh both fails and succeeds with Murder on the Orient Express.
As a director, he fails to bring to life Agatha Christie’s bestselling 1934 murder mystery. As an actor, he succeeds in playing the author’s most famous character, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The success is a mixed blessing: Branagh’s extravagant performance dwarfs that of everyone else’s in the film and never allows its stellar cast to bring alive Christie’s rich and interesting characters. Branagh’s Poirot is given far too much screen time and dialogue, resulting in a competent but ultimately boring performance. His directorial vanity does the novel’s wonderfully fleshed-out characters a huge disservice, not allowing them to be a part of the narrative as they must be. This is sad because this fourth adaptation of the novel could have succeeded where the first three had failed — in effectively using the romance of the glamorous era of train travel as a backdrop to tell one of the finest murder mystery stories of all times.
The story unfolds as the Orient Express travels from Istanbul to Calais. One of its passengers is found brutally murdered, stabbed 12 times, inside a cabin he shares with 12 other people who are all strangers to him and to each other. Poirot, heading to London for a case, takes over the task of figuring out the identity of the murderer. His task is made difficult by the fact that all the passengers in first and second class cabins, who had access to the victim, look suspect to him. The great detective solves the mystery, as expected, but is uncharacteristically unsure of the right way to serve justice in the case. He wrestles with a moral conundrum before delivering the results of his enquiry to the authorities and leaves the train — a man forced to live with a lie for the rest of his life.
Branagh’s film gives Poirot a heart and a romantic past. He holds on to the portrait of a lost love as he grapples with frustration and self-doubt while solving a case that is unique because of its complexity and the stakes involved. Other than giving the actor an opportunity to turn in a good performance, however, the increased focus on the person of the detective hurts the film by taking away from its narrative charm. The ill-conceived existential crisis in his life is decidedly less interesting than his efforts to determine the identity of the culprit could have been. Yet, the investigation is reduced to a series of uninteresting, and very similar, interrogations conducted by Poirot in a café car.
Branagh’s Poirot, at times, seems more intent on stealing the show than solving the crime. When he assembles the suspects – out of the train in a picturesque tunnel, most probably to take advantage of the film’s 65 millimetre format and computer-generated imagery – to announce the results of his investigation, he says little about how he solved the mystery and a whole lot about what he will do with the conclusion. This undermines the great – and much-debated – solution to the complex story laid out by Christie and may well leave a lot of audiences confused about the ending.
The biggest casualty of the film’s exaggerated focus on Poirot is its stellar cast. It is inexplicable to assemble a cast of top actors but give them barely enough screen time, dialogue and backstory to let their characters register with audiences. The twelve too many characters are introduced in a half-hearted manner and their connection to the murder victim is, at best, established perfunctorily. As the film moves ahead, the ensemble of characters becomes a little too unwieldy to handle for the director and too confusing to take in for the audience.
The deepening of Poirot’s character is not the only change the film makes while adapting Christie’s novel. It changes dialogue and sequences to make the film more politically correct for 21st century viewers. It opens with a sequence that preaches interfaith harmony. It features an ethnically diverse cast. It includes the stabbing of one of the suspects to give an additional twist to the plot. It combines the characters of a doctor and a soldier from the book into one. And, it contains a few more action sequences than needed. The changes, some unnecessary and some foolish, are largely superfluous to the narrative. Christie told a solid story and told it well. This is all the film, too, had to do. The additional elements neither look desirable nor do they bring in any new meanings to the tale. It could, and should, have stood out on its own 1934 merits.
Murder on the Orient Express does have its strengths. Jim Clay’s opulent production design is immaculate. Patrick Doyle’s music is hauntingly beautiful and enhances the mood of the movie. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is remarkable. He captures some truly arresting scenes. Alexandra Byrne’s wardrobe gives each character a unique, individual look. And then there is a visually sumptuous, remarkably executed single-take scene showing Poirot board the train.
Unfortunately, the few strengths of the film are far outnumbered by its many weaknesses — singular focus on Poirot, exaggerated interest in visual spectacle, limiting the performances of a stellar cast to cameos, a deft introductory passage that makes the subsequent pace of the film feel slow, and its clumsy direction. There is also the product placement of Godiva Chocolatier which is both crude and historically inaccurate. The logo used is the modern trademark of the chocolatier and not the original one used in the 1930s.
This latest version adds nothing to the earlier adaptations of Christie’s novel. For all its computer-generated images and cinematographic excellence, it is a truly unnecessary film. The only thing bigger and better in this version is Poirot’s moustache and that is not really reason enough to spend 55 million US dollars to remake a movie.
This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.