“Would you mind if I join you? You’re the world famous detective, Hercule Poirot. Avenger of the innocent. Is that what they call you in the papers?” ~ Edward Ratchett
“And are you innocent?” ~ Hercule Poirot
“Some men have a good look. All they have to do is keep their mouth shut and they can take home any prize they want. Still the mouth opens.” ~ Mrs. Hubbard
“I’m sleeping here, where everyone can see me, and where I can see everyone.” ~ Mary Debenham
“We’re surrounded by lies!” ~ Edward Masterman
“And who are you?” ~ Gerhard Hardman
“I am Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” ~ Poirot
Agatha Christie remains one of the literature world’s leading lights in mystery fiction, with her works frequently adapted for stage and screen. Her creations include the iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who appeared in a wealth of stories that have provided readers- and viewers- with suspenseful entertainment in a variety of ways. One of her most acclaimed tales, Murder On The Orient Express, has been previously adapted in film and on television, pitting the detective into a case of a murder on the lavish title train. It has now been adapted into a new film version by the actor and director Kenneth Branagh, with an outstanding cast.
Poirot (Branagh), the esteemed and eccentric detective, is looking to unwind and relax after a case in 1930s Europe. This being a murder mystery story, unwinding and relaxing are not going to happen, and he is summoned back to Europe on a case, boarding the Orient Express to swiftly return. He meets a number of other passengers on board, each with their own secrets and reasons for being on board. Some are wealthy and well known, others are of more common stock. One of them, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), asks for his assistance, fearing for his own safety. Murder ensues, and the detective finds himself caught up in the task of narrowing down suspects and identifying the killer.
The screenplay comes from Michael Green, adapting the original story by Christie. Green has been behind films like Logan, Blade Runner 2049, and Alien Covenant, and his screenplay tweaks the story with some details- nationalities of certain characters, for instance. But the screenplay follows the story’s methodical sifting through secrets, the detective’s relentless pursuit of the truth, and the tension of a situation where a murderer lingers among passengers on a train, marooned in winter. I like that the story plays those secrets close to the vest, giving the audience a chance to get used to the characters at a distance before murder and mayhem bring everything in a different direction.
Branagh comes from a background in Shakespeare on the stage, and he’s adapted several of the Bard’s works for film (he’s just about the right age now for a cinematic Macbeth). That theatricality shows itself in this film, with how he works with actors, how he stages the action, and how he performs in the lead role himself. He has a great eye for detail, which shows itself through the film- the luxury of the train is well rendered, with its furnishings providing a lavish setting for those with money to spare and a wish to be seen on one of the great symbols of class. Branagh’s crew keeps that attention to detail in other ways, evoking the period through costume and prop details; we feel like we’ve just stepped back in time and are unseen passengers on board. And Branagh’s style as a director works well with the material, slowly driving up the tension as things go along, with this machine of luxury stranded in the wilderness- while a murderer lingers among its passengers.
With a cast like this, part of the draw of the movie is just watching them at play, and Branagh goes with a diverse selection of fine actors, some of whom he has worked with before, others who are new collaborators. Depp himself has spent the last few years known for bad behavior and playing eccentrics to no end; here he plays the ill-fated Ratchett in an understated way (understated for the actor, anyway). He’s anxious, but tries to hide that behind a smarmy kind of charm, and his character is an unpleasant man whose past carries many secrets and acts of criminality. The actor plays off that well, and needs to play more subtle characters like this for awhile rather than return to over the top mischief.
Derek Jacobi has been a frequent collaborator with Branagh over the years, and this time plays a butler, Edward Masterman, whose ties to others play out through the film. Judi Dench, another occasional collaborator with Branagh, plays Princess Dragomiroff with an occasionally arrogant quality that you might expect of royalty. Josh Gad turns up as Ratchett’s assistant Hector MacQueen, turning out to be as corrupt as his boss. Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, and Leslie Odom Jr. all turn up as passengers- the professor, the missionary, the governess, and the doctor in that order- and suspects in ways that require them to play their emotions and agendas hidden. This is true of the rest of the suspects. Michelle Pfeiffer gets a lot to do as Mrs. Hubbard, the widow with her own reasons for being aboard the train, a forceful personality as the story unfolds. She brings a sultry, cynical air to her performance.
Part of the fun of a murder mystery is watching the detective prove how brilliant he is by unravelling the secrets and circumstances of the murder, and Branagh has a lot of fun playing Poirot. The character has been played before in film and television by actors like Albert Finney, Alfred Molina, and David Suchet, and Branagh slips into the eccentric, salty-mustached Belgian detective effortlessly. When we meet him, he’s eager only for rest, but a man of his skills is never allowed to relax, and Branagh plays off that sense of irritation early. He’s also a man of principle, finding it distasteful to work in a bodyguard capacity for a career criminal, and yet obliged to investigate the murder that ensues. Branagh’s take on the character is a good one, a doggedly determined and brilliant mind that works to seek out a solution, unearthing secrets as he goes along.
Murder On The Orient Express turns out to be a good deal of fun, watching an outstanding cast in a period film deal with a murder mystery. One could watch a cast like this reading the phone book and still enjoy it. It brings to life one of the genre’s great figures, as Poirot confronts an enigmatic puzzle of a mystery, and sifts through its intricate connections. Adding in a dash more action than the prim and proper Agatha might have expected, the film is a fine lark built around blood and death- and proper manners along the way.