I remember well when I read Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel “Murder on the Orient Express” for the first time. I was a 9-year-old boy who devoured many various mystery novels ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, and that novel quickly became one of my favorite mystery novels for its dexterous handling of mystery and atmosphere. Even though I remember many details of the novel quite well, I often read it again just for appreciating its mood and plot mechanism, and I also enjoyed the 1974 film adaptation version starring Albert Finney and the 2010 TV adaptation version starring David Suchet.
Naturally, I had some expectation on the new film adaptation of Christie’s novel when I heard about its production in last year, but I found myself observing it from the distance while never fully involved in its story and characters. Although nothing is particularly wrong in terms of technical details and I appreciated some new things in this version, the movie comes to lose its sense of fun during its second half, and the overall result is less entertaining than the 1974 film in comparison.
The story begins in Jerusalem, 1934. A serious case of theft recently happened, and there are three culprits: a priest, a rabbi, and an imam. As these culprits are brought to the Wailing Wall, there comes Hercules Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), who is, according to himself, the greatest detective in the world. Although his brilliant mind initially seems to be more occupied with having two exactly identical eggs boiled precisely for 4 minutes, he soon solves the case, and then he goes to Istanbul for having a vacation he really needs now.
However, right after he arrives in Istanbul, there comes an urgent message from London, and that means he must depart from the city as soon as possible. He quickly gets on the Orient Express along with an old friend who happens to be an executive of the train company, and the Orient Express soon begins its glamorous journey across the Europe continent with various passengers including Poirot.
As the train rapidly moves through wintry landscapes, we meet Poirot’s fellow passengers one by one. They are played by Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and Olivia Colman, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that one of their characters is murdered during one night, not long after asking for protection from Poirot, who flatly declines the request because he does not feel right about it.
While the train is stopped due to an avalanche which happened around the time of the murder, Poirot is asked to handle the case. Although he is reluctant at first, he eventually agrees to do that, and he soon starts to interrogate the other passengers on the train one by one. Of course, every passenger on the train is a possible suspect, and he is ready to detect any particular thing from them during his interrogation.
As the adapted screenplay by Michael Green moves from one interrogation scene to another as required, Director/Lead actor Kenneth Branagh and his technical crew try as much as they can for constantly holding our attention. While Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ camera provides a number of nice visual moments as fluidly moving here and there around inside and outside the train, the production design by Jim Clay and the costume by Alexandra Byrne are exemplary in their authentic period details, and the score by Patrick Doyle, who has been one of Branagh’s major collaborators, is also fabulous as accentuating some dramatic points in the film as demanded.
However, the movie did not engage me as much as I hoped, while failing to bring enough personality to its story and characters. Sure, the characters of Christie’s novel are more or less than cardboard characters mainly functioning as potential suspects, but they are enjoyable caricatures at least, and that aspect is preserved well in the 1974 film mainly thanks to Finney and its other stellar cast members including Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, and Michael York.
While the main cast members of the 2017 film are relatively less impressive, they also instantly draw our attention right from the start, and it is a shame that most of them do not have many things to do except filling their respective spots. While Cruz and Dafoe are particularly wasted in their mediocre roles, Jacobi, Gad, Colman, and Dench acquit themselves well, and Ridley and Odom Jr. feel flat compared to Connery and Redgrave in the 1974 film. In case of Depp, he suitably exudes unpleasant vibe during his scenes, and Pfeiffer is effortlessly flamboyant as the most colorful character among a bunch of possible suspects in the film.
As the center of the movie, Branagh did his job a bit better than expected. With that big, distracting gray mustache on his face, he looks awkward at first, but he manages to hold the film together. Though he is less memorable compared to Finney or Suchet, Branagh mostly succeeds in conveying to us his character’s wit and intelligence, and he certainly relishes the moment when his character eventually explains the case in front of everyone during the expected finale.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is not entirely satisfying to me, but it is not wholly without entertainment. Sure, I found myself wanting to revisit the 1974 movie during my viewing, I had a mildly engaging time on the whole at least, and you will probably enjoy the movie more than me if you have not yet encountered Christie’s novel or its adaptations.