I’m one of those people who, for the most part, prefers to read a book before seeing a film adaptation. As such, well, I read the original novel of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie in advance of seeing the new movie from director and star Kenneth Branagh.
I’ll have the review for the novel up tomorrow. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on the movie.
Opening in Jerusalem, we see world famous detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) about to solve a case involving three men of different faiths all accused of stealing a valuable artifact. That’s a mild change from the novel for very understandable reasons: Christie opens her book with Poirot departing from Aleppo, Syria after solving a big case, but this new scene goes a long way towards establishing Poirot’s Sherlock Holmes-like bonafides: he’s a master observer who is never wrong about such things. We also see he has some sort of OCD and insists on balance in all things. Such that, if he were to step in camel droppings with one foot, he will immediately step in the same pile with the other foot to maintain his own personal balance. That’s a less understandable changeover from the Christie original. I haven’t read much of Christie (meaning I have read exactly one novel, the one that forms the basis for this movie), but like Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, there isn’t much to the character of Hercule Poirot on the page so much as he is a delivery system for solving baffling crimes. I’ll cover this ground again with the book review tomorrow: Branagh as an actor would obviously want more to do with the character.
As it is, book purists may have other issues with Director Branagh’s interpretation. The most obvious is casting Branagh himself as Poirot. Poirot is typically described and depicted as a short, balding man with an elaborate mustache. The last part seems to hold true, though Branagh’s mustache looks a bit more ridiculous than anything else. Other changes, such as making the white British army officer into a black British doctor seem to be done to make a few social commentary remarks on race, would look very out of place in any book from Christie’s time and seem more harmless than anything else and, as a result, are less effective while changing a few other character details, such as recasting the Swedish missionary as a Spanish woman, seems to be done perhaps simply to cast Penelope Cruz in the role.
That said, if it looks like I am panning the movie, I am not. It was fine. There isn’t much suspense to the movie, with two tacked on action sequences that mostly involve a short chase along a railroad bridge and then some shots fired at Poirot, but both are brief and act more as distractions than anything else. This is a quiet movie that acts more like a giant jigsaw puzzle leading the famous solution that I actually knew about before I read the book. As such, it actually imitates the source material. Poirot is not a physical presence. He’s a thinker, and the other characters he encounters don’t seem to be going out of their way to deny anything though Poirot himself is quick to figure out when they are lying to him. As a suspense thriller, this isn’t much of a movie. As a murder mystery with a bit of style to it, that’s another story. There’s some rather blatant scene-chewing from the likes of Michelle Pfieffer, Willem Dafoe, and Johnny Depp (as the murder victim), but overall, I mostly enjoyed this. Maybe leave it on if you find it on cable or want to hit a discount theater. Eight out of ten Russian alphabet lessons.
Oh, Christie fans may get a mild chuckle out of the last scene, where Poirot is called away again for another mystery. There’s a direct reference made to another book, but whether that is an Easter Egg or a sequel hook, only time will tell.