For nearly thirty years, Kenneth Branagh’s filmography has struck a balance between high culture and populist entertainment. His Shakespeare adaptations like Henry V and Othello were sincere attempts to bring the Bard to a wider audience, while cult hits like Dead Again were terrific Hollywood baubles. His latest film, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, continues in that tradition. It is explicitly NOT for longtime fans of Christie, her beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, or the 1974 Sidney Lumet adaptation. Branagh accomplishes something tricky: his film stands on its own – mixing a hammy, old-fashioned procedural with modern direction and effects – but longtime fans of Christie or Lumet may enjoy how this version compares and contrast with previous ones.
Branagh himself plays Poirot, and before he steps onto the train, there is a brief vignette in Jerusalem. Standing at a holy site before what looks like hundreds of pilgrims, Poirot explains how a priest, rabbi, and imam are the main suspects for the theft of an ancient relic. Branagh relishes the theatricality of the scene, giving his Poirot a chance to perform in front of eager onlookers, whereas previous Poirots would avoid such displays (in a strange flourish, he desecrates the Wailing Wall in order to make a point). This realignment is useful, since his eccentricity will serve as a guide through a mystery where manners matter as much as clues.
An important case gets Poirot on the Orient Express – departing Istanbul and arriving at London via continental Europe – and he strikes up conservation with the passengers. The most notable include an American heiress (Michelle Pfeiffer), an Austrian doctor (Willem Dafoe), and an English governess (Daisy Ridley). Johnny Depp plays Ratchett, the titular murder victim, who was stabbed twelve time in his private berth, even though the conductor claims he saw no one enter inside. Not to fear, since Poirot is on the case and notices several clues almost immediately. The rest of the film is Poirot interviewing all the passengers, and without fail, they have something to hide.
The procedural details of Poirot’s investigation are downright stagey. Branagh could have filmed like Sidney Lumet, with Poirot grilling the suspects in the same space, lingering on the dialogue as an actor’s showcase. Instead, Branagh punches up Michael Green’s script with breezy direction and multiple locations. He jettisons a lot of procedural detail, and instead lets his gliding camera provide additional information (major plot points relate to our understanding of where the passengers stayed). There are Spielberg-esque scenes where the camera lingers overhead, with people wandering in and out of the frame. Since the investigation happens after a minor derailment, just before a tunnel on a snowy mountainside, Branagh has an opportunity for striking vistas and set-pieces. A foot chase through the skeleton of a bridge stretches credibility, and yet these formal changes help the film unfold at a pleasant clip.
Of course, such an approach denies the all-star cast many opportunities to showcase their talents. Penelope Cruz appears as a contrite, pious passenger, and yet she barely has more than a dozen lines. Judi Dench, Josh Gad, and longtime Branagh collaborator Derek Jacobi are similarly given little more than glorified cameos. This is all by design, since Branagh prefers a leaner adaptation with more focus on production/costumes, to say nothing of the mystery itself. The only real standout supporting performer is Tom Bateman, the train owner and Poirot’s reluctant right hand man, who transitions from an amoral hedonist into a conscientious quasi-policeman.
Murder on the Orient Express explicitly serves Branagh’s considerable ego. Aside from his favorite tropes like flashbacks in hyper-dramatic black and white, this version shifts the murder’s moral weight from the passengers onto Poirot. Throughout his investigation, Poirot grows keenly aware of what Ratchett’s death means for everyone else (Depp, a wife-beating dog smuggler, is well-suited to play an unlikable, arch, contemptible heel). Whereas Lumet’s version shares the denouement among his impressive cast of character actors, Branagh snatches all the juicy lines for himself.
This shift is not necessarily a bad thing, since it speeds up the plot and gives the veteran actor/director to veer between sincerity and camp. This film will be polished and confident for most audiences, and for those who yearning more, it may just create new Christie fans. Based on Branagh’s handling of the material, those newfound fans will be surprised to find a Poirot who is more reserved and cynical than he is theatrical. Luckily, Branagh is just faithful enough so that these new fans will not be turned off, but pleasantly surprised.