The Orient Express welcomed its first passengers in 1883. The train was not only a railway connecting Paris and Bucharest (and later Istanbul), but a symbol of its era’s ideologies that were obsessed with the east and its peoples. It was partially thanks to this railway line that the intelligentsia of the period could get to know the east as they could easily travel from Paris to the end of the continent in the span of a few days. This Orientalism affected Agatha Christie, whose most famous entry of her Poirot-series takes place on the legendary train. This novel was adapted several times, this year by the Oscar-winning Kenneth Branagh.
Hercule Poirot is travelling back from Istanbul to London on the Orient Express when one of his fellow passengers is stabbed 12 times. After the incident the train also gets stuck due to a snowstorm hitting the track, thus the detective who is to quote him: “probably the best in the world” has to solve the case before they are able to move and the killer has to be presented to the Yugoslavian police.
Period novels should always be adapted in a way that they become relevant to the current era. This is the reason for the extreme colours of the film. The sharp lights are contrasted with the dark greyish colours that create the mixture of the perfect atmosphere for this blend of the 1930s and 2010s. Kenneth Branagh (who did not only take the leading role, but directed and produced the film as well) also smuggled plot points relevant to our times into the film, however did so in a rather clumsy way. Even though it is one of the most creative scenes in the film in terms of execution, the opening when a rabbi, a priest and an imam are accused of stealing a holy artefact and Poirot solves the case demonstrating that none of them are behind the theft feels rather forced and predictable. The themes of racism and tolerance are present throughout the whole film, but unfortunately do not culminate in anything. This may be partially due to the fact that the murder happens too soon, before the characters are introduced properly. Sadly some of them will not be known by the viewer later either. A crucial element of Poirot’s investigation is talking to each individual thoroughly, however with some characters we only get two or three lines of conversation. This should not be excused by the lack of time since the film is only 1 hour 50 minutes long, therefore there would have been enough time to elaborate on all the passengers’ confessions.
Even worse, some of these confessions don’t take place on the train. For some reason Branagh decided to let the characters out of the perfect set which was a huge mistake. A great cause of suspense is the mere fact that the passengers are closed together in the train and the killer is amongst them. There is no way out and the murderer must be caught before he strikes again. Frustratingly, Branagh obviously knows this as he uses the element rather well at times. Occasionally the camera shows the actors from a vertical point of view through a fictional window on top of the train which demonstrates how narrow its corridors are, thus creating a claustrophobic environment. This is not the only smart approach by the director: Until the train is stopped by the snowstorm the film operates with long takes, however after it is derailed shorter takes come with more edits.
Branagh directs the cast well in his own style. As the British director is used to adapting Shakespeare his theatrical style is transmitted to this film as well. The dialogue and the acting both seem straight of a play which not only is a great addition to the 1930s atmosphere, but the actors seem to be enjoying it as well. Judi Dench is brilliant in the role of the princess, although for her this role was far from challenging. It is refreshing to see Daisy Ridley in a role without action, and Johnny Depp finally plays a character that is not a buffoon.
The director also does well in the role that was written for him, although he will probably not be remembered like David Suchet simply because Branagh’s is not an accurate Poirot portrayal. The Belgian detective’s brilliance comes from his ability to imagine and see the complex picture of murderous plots more than anyone else in the world. However, in this take he is more like Sherlock Holmes who uses deduction to uncover the details. Also a crucial element of Poirot is his moustache which he wears with great pride, therefore it is important to get that right. In this the current adaptation fails completely. The moustache looks ridiculous and obviously fake. It is understandable that it had to be made to look unique for the eyes of today who are used to seeing facial hair, however it could have been done in a way that it actually looks believable.
This film had the potential to be a memorable and suspenseful crime film that deals with issues our society faces today, however failed due to not spending enough time on its characters and some questionable directing decisions which are most probably symptoms of being rushed. This is ironic as the Orient Express gained its legendary status by pounding through Europe’s greatest cities, and allowing its passengers to thoroughly observe the beauties of the east, not just by simply taking them from London to Durham. That is a train journey on which the best thing to observe is a mediocre, but enjoyable film. Like ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’
Murder on the Orient Express. 2017. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Michael Green (based on the novel by Agatha Christie). Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley
This review was written about a film shown by The Bede Film Society. This week they are showing ‘Elf.’