Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Novel: Agatha Christie; Screenplay: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Olivia, Willem Defoe, and Johnny Depp
Genre: Drama, Mystery/Suspense
When I was a spry young thing, my dad slid an Agatha Christie book across the table and said to me, “Try this one.” Murder on the Orient Express was my first introduction to Hercule Poirot and his mustache of epic proportions. While I’m a firm believer of Kenneth’s Branagh’s acting and directing, I am interested to see if he could pull off Dame Christie’s famous detective as well as he did Shakespeare. Teeming with a cast of well-known actors, the train to Istanbul is ready to take the world by storm.
Violence/Scary Images: The entire premise of the movie revolves around a murder on the Orient Express. Although the victim is shown with a blood-stained shirt and a faceless hand plunges a knife out of the shot, the actual murder is not shown. Several characters point a gun and one man shoots another in the shoulder, but there is only blood on the clothing. A backstory is introduced of a kidnapped and murdered child. There is another scene, (that gives away the plot) but it involves some violence.
Language/Crude Humor: D**n and h***were used a handful of times, and G** d**n was used twice. Some characters discuss their racial prejudice but use vague, PG terms.
Spiritual Content: The movie opens at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. There is a brief religious joke involving a priest, a rabbi, and a Muslim imam. Penelope Cruz’s character is pious and religious, wearing a cross necklace. She attributes many of her vague responses to “God is busy.” Her emotionless response to the murder is “Some things are in God’s hands.” There is a shot that mimics the painting, “The Last Supper,” where all of the suspects are arranged like the apostles.
Sexual Content: There is mention that a character is a prostitute, but she is not overly undressed and there are no actions implicating her line of work. Michelle Pfeiffer’s character gives a few sexually charged zingers, but none that are overt and crass, the worst being: “I know what it feels like to have a man in my room.”
Drug/Alcohol References: The Orient Express is smoky from near constant cigar and cigarette smoking, and awash with cocktail drinking. One man is portrayed as an alcoholic and regularly takes swigs from his flask.
Positive Content: Hercule Poirot is a man of his word, who boasts a resilient sense of justice.
Through the years, dozens of Agatha Christie books have been made into plays and movies. Previous versions of Murder on the Orient Express were solely based on acting and physical props to convey the story, without so much as a wink to CGI. Kenneth Branagh’s solid directing record and Michael Green’s stunning Blade Runner 2049 screenplay is a winning combination. Still, could such a bloated cast of front-runner names pull off the cleverness of Agatha Christie, or would they be fighting for the most screen time?
Kenneth Branagh eases the film into Poirot’s world by starting in Jerusalem at the famed Wailing Wall. Detective Poirot attempts to work out the theft of a religious relic between three suspects: a priest, a rabbi, and an imam. This entire opening introduces the audience to Poirot’s OCD need for balance in his life, along with the snappy humor and wit the detective uses to solve cases. Branagh draws the viewers into Poirot’s exhaustion and the need for a holiday, away from the cases and fame that relentlessly follow him. It is the hero’s reluctance that loses to his sense of integrity when there is a murder on the train—a purpose that borderlines obsession to bring the suspect to justice. Every character makes the viewer guess. The solution is not the neatly tied-up package Poirot seeks, but the chaos that cobbles the answer is its own twisted sense justice.
The lead detective is played by the film’s director. Branagh never gives the viewer reason to question that his Poirot is not the one Agatha Christie envisioned—from the absurd mustache to the thick Belgian accent. Tom Bateman takes on the role of Bouc, a friend of Poirot’s who runs the Orient and has a penchant for liquor and prostitutes. As Governess Mary Debenham, Daisy Ridley tackles a racial issue while keeping her distance from Poirot and evading his inquiries into her life. In a character change from the original story, Leslie Odom Jr. is Dr. Arbuthnot. The pious and prude Pilar Estravados is magnificently played by Penélope Cruz (who is a polar opposite of her character in Blow with Johnny Depp). I still saw the remnants of LeFou from Beauty and the Beast in Josh Gad’s portrayal of Hector McQueen and his performance fell a little short for me.
Sergei Polunin was a newcomer to me and his protective Count Andrenyi makes me want to see more of his work. His fragile film wife, Countess Elena Andrenyi is flawlessly played by Lucy Boynton. Willem Defoe was my black horse, and I was stunned by his character twist because I was totally invested in his acting. Michelle Pfeiffer is near perfection with this representation of Caroline Hubbard—a sassy widow on the hunt for a new boy toy, no matter her age. Dame Judi Dench impeccably played Princess Dragomiroff, but what do you expect from a woman who has also depicted Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth? Last, but not least, Johnny Depp’s adaptation of Edward Ratchett is as pure evil as his Captain Jack Sparrow is pure drunken fun.
Filmed using the last four 65mm Panavision cameras in the world, Branagh is a director who refuses to shoot digitally. The result is a rich landscape of physical movie sets and landscapes, with actors who react to the actual setting around them. He even works in some gorgeous cut-away, overhead shots inside the train, with the camera cleverly tracking the actors from one bedroom compartment to another. Each shot is vibrant in colors and you can almost choke on the cigar smoke you feel so immersed the scenes. Branagh blends shots of the world, from New Zealand to Malta and Italy, to plop the viewer into the snow avalanched world.
The Murder on the Orient Express is not heavy on music or a score. In fact, there is one song attributed to the soundtrack called “Never Forget.” Patrick Doyle wrote the music, Kenneth Branagh the lyrics, and performed by Michelle Pfeiffer (Ah! I remember The Fabulous Baker Boys), although for the life of me, I cannot remember the song at all in the movie. Nor do I even remember any background music. This flick is purely plot and cinematography driven.
This book is my second favorite, behind And Then There Were None. Frankly, it delivers the entire plot with new vision and humor, never losing Agatha Christie’s subtle mystery. Sure, some details are inevitably changed, but that happens in book-to-movie translations. But even my dad, a true Agatha Christie fan, thinks this film is spot on. If you want to treat yourself to a mystery ending you never see coming, an impeccable cast, and a last line that will have you think “Yes!” then get thee to the theater for Murder on the Orient Express.