One of my favorite moments in the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express comes near the end—and I am not giving away any spoilers here—when the array of passengers are by themselves in the train car.
The investigation is over and as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) looks back, everyone begins to click champagne glasses.
The way each passenger clicks his or her glass with another is indicative of their character—a strong click, a confident click, a meek click, a shy one. It all comes together as Poirot, ever the outsider but also ever the observer, looks on, pleased yet also a bit shaken at how things turned out.
Murder on the Orient Express—the 1974 version, the 2001 remake with Alfred Molina as Poirot, the 2006 version with David Suchet as Poirot and now the 2017 one with Kenneth Branagh—are based on the 1934 novel by Agatha Christie.
Murder on the Orient Express is one of Christie’s best-known novels—mainly, I think, because it is constantly remade.
If you don’t know the plot by now, don’t expect me to give it away.
Let’s just say, Murder on the Orient Express is about:
That happens on the Orient Express train
then the train gets stuck.
The cast is big.
It has Hercule Poirot.
And that leads me to this latest incarnation of Murder on the Orient Express.
All of the above happens in the 2017 version of this Christie classic, in which Kenneth Branagh directs and stars.
And just like the 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet, Branagh uses an all-star cast.
But how films are made and also viewed by audiences have changed drastically in 43 years. The clever casting in 1974 gave us a tight ensemble that included Lauren Bacall, Michael York, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, and Rachel Roberts, among others.
But the 2017 cast seems more like a gimmick—how many popular actors can we cram into one movie. These established and up-and-coming actors include Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, and Leslie Odom Jr., among others.
The plot, of course, hasn’t changed. A murder of a mysterious passenger occurs in the middle of the night, shortly before the train stalls—this time on a cliff-side rail. The view is breathtaking—CGI special effects weren’t high on the list in 1974. Because there is nowhere to go, the murderer must be one of the passengers on the lushly appointed train.
CGI also allows Branagh to open up the movie by staging an elaborate foot race. While this gives Murder on the Orient Express some extra action, it also takes away from the story. One reason the other versions worked so well is that by keeping the story on the train the sense of claustrophobia was heightened and the menace that the killer “may be among us” added to the tension.
As Poirot, Branagh never quite rises to the level of the other actors who have portrayed him. Branagh adds a bit of compassion to the character while also showing his fussy quirks, which are both irritating and charming. But his leaps to conclusion about the case seem rather far-fetched here.
I also worried that at any moment Branagh’s mammoth mustache would attack him. In the books and other films, Poirot’s mustache is his pride and joy—a tidy, crisp line that he lovingly waxes and even sleeps with a special mask to protect. But that mustache has never been this huge, and the sleeping mask he wears to protect it looks like a forerunner of those CPAP machines people use for sleeping. The ‘stache is kind of like David Caruso’s sunglasses in CSI: Miami. All you can see when Caruso’s Horatio Caine takes those sunglasses on or off are those darned shades.
And as good an actor as Branagh is—his Hamlet and the film Dead Again showcase this—he is outshined by some of his cast, especially Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Daisy Ridley, and Leslie Odom Jr.
This new incarnation of Murder on the Orient Express is entertaining, but never really soars, nor touches with quite the emotion we need. Christie was a master at looking at class systems and what motivated people. This comes through in Branagh’s film, especially in the relationship between Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr., which gives us another view of the couple who were portrayed by Connery and Redgrave in 1974.
But Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express devolves when he gives us unnecessary action scenes. We don’t need this cerebral man who relies on his “little grey cells” to be running around in the snow, chasing someone. Nor does he need to have a gun pulled on him—twice—or get into a physical fight. And a scene toward the end is pure hysteria and so jarring. These scenes seem to take too many liberties with the Christie text and work against the film. It is one thing to show a different side of the story with an interracial couple that enhances the story. It’s another thing to cheapen the story with silly asides.
And, do we need a new Murder on the Orient Express? The other versions were much more satisfying. There are tons of terrific modern mysteries that would make involving films or TV series. I want new ideas, new stories, not remake after remake. And there are plenty of works by Christie or other crime-fiction masters that would make terrific films. And one spoiler, the end seems to suggest that Death on the Nile will be Branagh’s next project. I hope he sees the 1978 version with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, and Lois Chiles.
As for that last scene with the champagne toasts, well, you’ll have to wait a long time.
This scene now seems to be a Last Supper-like approach. I just kept thinking how cold everyone must be.
Murder on the Orient Express: Rated PG-13 for murder. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
PHOTOS: Top, Kenneth Branagh, center, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leslie Odom Jr. Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox.
Oline H. Cogdill