Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Classic story, wonderful acting
Cons: Time constraints hamper story and characters
The Bottom Line:
Classic Christie tale
Told with great modern actors
Overall good take
“I Recognize That Mustache.”
I am often a little embarrassed to admit that with how much I love mysteries, I have read very little Agatha Christie. One of the few I’m familiar with is Murder on the Orient Express, thanks to listening to the audio book a few years ago. So, when I heard about a new big screen adaptation, I knew I had to see it. Despite the mixed reviews, I found I enjoyed it.
We meet famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) in Israel where he is working the case of a stolen relic that could start an inter faith war if he doesn’t figure it out in time. With the case concluded, he thinks he deserves a vacation, but a summons when in Istanbul finds him boarding the Orient Express at the last minute as he heads to London.
On the train, he begins to meet his fellow passengers, including Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp). Ratchett is a business man of dubious ethics who is afraid that one of the people he’s swindled might be out to get him. He wants to hire Poirot to watch his back, but Poirot refuses.
Their second night on the train, an avalanche traps the train. While everyone has their bumps and bruises, Poirot discovers in the morning that Ratchett is dead. Murdered, in fact. Stabbed. Despite his desire for a vacation, Poirot finds himself pressed into service. Is one of his fellow passengers a killer?
There are twelve suspects in this case, and this movie clearly shows why some stories work better as books than movies. In the book, we get time to know all the suspects. There just isn’t time for that here. It’s not a fault of the writers, it’s just a flaw of the medium. It’s a shame since this movie has such a huge cast of well-known names with the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, and Judi Dench. Everyone is fantastic at making the most of their screen time, but it isn’t enough to truly show off their talents.
Not having read many of the Poirot stories, I don’t have a solid picture in my mind of the detective. I know some people who complained that Kenneth Branagh isn’t at all the way Poirot is described. Honestly, that didn’t bother me. I did find his mustache very distracting, and not at all the way I pictured it in the book. At times, it felt like he was a bit more Sherlock Holmes personality wise than his own character. At times, I even saw some Monk in him. While only occasional references to “little grey cells” are made, I was okay with that. Honestly, I find that phrase overused when describing Poirot. The movie gives Poirot a love interest in his past. We don’t know much about this relationship, but he does talk to her picture a few times as a device to allow us to hear his thoughts on the case.
And the case feels short shafted here. In the book, it is a carefully constructed puzzle that leads to only one logical conclusion. It’s a story that is masterful even rereading it. Again, because of the time constraints, some of these plot points get condensed, which makes the story feel rushed. It’s all there, but I was glad I had the background of the novel to make it easier to follow.
The movie tries to have some beautiful shots. Unfortunately, their location budget must have been small and their effects budget just as small. It’s obvious most of the time when they are using effects instead of a physical location. This is mainly worth noting only in passing.
In addition to starring, Kenneth Branagh also directed the film. He made a few interesting artistic choices designed, I suspect, to show us how cramped the train is. Instead, they just make those scenes weird. I’m thinking especially of the scenes shot from above, where we see the tops of the actor’s heads as they carry on a conversation. Fortunately, those are rare.
The movie does add in a dash more action and vary the locations for a few scenes to keep things from getting too slow and repetitive for the viewers, and these changes worked for me.
Let me make it clear, I think this film works overall and captures this story well. It takes on an almost impossible task, so it is easy to spot the flaws. But I was drawn into the story as I watched it, and the climax is riveting.
So, if you are looking for an old fashioned mystery, this is a movie to go see. Murder on the Orient Express isn’t perfect, but it is enjoyable for fans of the classic story.