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Agatha Christie Gets a Modern Makeover

Murder on the Orient Express is not a remake! Some are calling it that because of the popular 1974 film starring a cast of greats including Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, John Gielguld, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, and Albert Finney as Poirot; but this is a story that’s been adapted numerous times in both film and television. It’s one of Agatha Christie’s most enduring stories and for good reason.
Kenneth Branagh’s not only the latest to adapt this book, but he also has the task of reviving the murder mystery genre, and Agatha Christie stories in particular, for a new audience. And with this movie he does, though probably only for the right new audience.
Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is the self-proclaimed greatest detective in the world on his way back to London from Istanbul via the Orient Express. He’s surrounded by a collection of unusual strangers, including one who comes to him fearing for his life and asking for protection. The following day, as an avalanche has blocked the trains’ path temporarily stalling it, that same man is found murdered. And so with everyone on the train hiding something and trapped together, it’s up to Poirot to solve the mystery not only of who committed the murder, but why.
This is a surprisingly loyal adaptation. Yes, it does take a number of liberties, adding some action, and making sensible cinematic changes (like not setting the entirety of Poirot’s investigations in a handful of compartments). But it’s plot and direction stick very close to the source. This is a slight disadvantage to readers of the book expecting much surprise, but the movie makes up for it in presentation. Branagh really knows how to stage a scene and though the train setting doesn’t get to benefit from his mastery of production design, he does shoot his actors closely and tensely. This movie makes it as much about characters as its mystery.
Like the 1974 film, this one has a pretty great ensemble cast. There are twelve suspects each of whom is interviewed by Poirot, though some obviously get more attention than others. The best of these are Michelle Pfeiffer as the talkative American Caroline Hubbard, Penelope Cruz as the recently devout Pilar Estravados, and surprisingly enough Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, secretary to the murdered man. The film diversifies the cast a bit too. The book was already one of Christie’s most diverse, being set outside Britain and featuring a large supporting cast of non-British characters, but few of them weren’t white. So, for this movie Greta Ohlsson becomes Pilar Estravados, Antonio Foscarelli becomes Biniamino Marquez and Colonel Arbuthnot becomes Doctor Arbuthnot. The latter is played quite well by Leslie Odom Jr., though it’s pretty clear by the dialogue around race that he wasn’t black in the book. Often alongside him is Daisy Ridley as the clever governess Mary Debenham, holding her own fairly in this cast of talents that also includes the likes of Willen Defoe and Judi Dench. But among these internationally-known stars it’s good to see actors like Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, and Lucy Boynton given a little bit of limelight. The only lesser link is perhaps Tom Bateman as Poirot’s partner on the case, Bouc, and that’s largely due to the character not being interesting in any incarnation of the story. He exists only for Poirot to exposit of off.
And as for Poirot, Branagh’s pretty good. Taking on this role was no easy task, especially considering Branagh’s following up the great David Suchet, who perfected the part. But he gets the mannerisms, personality, and ego down right -everything that made Poirot such a fun character, despite looking nothing like him except for an exaggerated moustache.
The films’ shortcomings may only be in how closely it sticks to the novel. Even with added action scenes, slightly different turns, and more movement, like substituting Poirot musing in his compartment with striding along the top of the train, this is a still a slower-paced film than some audiences would have the patience for. As much as I like it I can’t see it winning over that many new fans. That, and there are a couple scenes entirely shot from an overhead angle for a bizarre and distractingly long period of time. It’s here where you can kind of feel Branagh struggling to find interesting ways to shoot the train. That being said, the actual murder scene, when we do see it in flashback, is a lot more effective than the other versions I’ve seen. And that’s saying a lot considering the 1974 film was directed by Sidney Lumet.
Murder on the Orient Express is a very good film, exactly what you’d want from an Agatha Christie adaptation. Branagh was smart enough to know where he could deviate from the story and where he had to keep it intact, and clearly respects the classic book. If you’re not a fan of Christie’s mysteries though, this movie isn’t going to change that. But my expectations were exceeded, and with the finale teasing a possible Death on the Nile film, I’m hopeful that should it happen, it’s in the right hands.

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