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Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is easily in the conversation for one of the all time great literature characters, having been the focal point of more than thirty-three novels, over fifty short stories, and numerous film and television adaptations. The most famous story of course, and the one that seems to be re-adapted every decade or so, is Murder on the Orient Express. With so many versions of the story already, it’s easy to just write this one-off, and who could blame the audience? In a time where nostalgia rules, nothing is quite sacred in the Hollywood machine, but thankfully star and director Kenneth Branagh has crafted a fun take on the novel that is sure to please newcomers and fans alike.
For the uninitiated, Murder on the Orient Express follows Hercule Poirot (Branagh) who is trying to take a much needed vacation. But when a man named Edward Ratchett is murdered while he’s onboard the Orient Express, Poirot’s holiday becomes a twisting case of intrigue and mystery. Each clue seemingly doesn’t fit with the next, and everyone on board the train is a suspect. But with his wits, and a fantastic mustache to boot, Poirot races against time to uncover the truth about what happened to Ratchett, and who’s behind his grisly murder.
Murder on the Orient Express is a classic novel for so many reasons, and in particular the ending. So because of that, and with so many previous adaptations of the novel, it’s hard to really reinvent the wheel in any sort of way, and instead you have to find a way to make the story intriguing for those who know it, while also hoping to win over new viewers. Branagh does just that with his new adaptation, where he finds a way to make it feel fresh and fun, while not straying far from the novel, while also not changing the ending of the story. It’s not an easy balance, but Branagh finds a way to make it work. The most unusual part of the film, and arguably the most enjoyable moment, is the film’s cold open that leads into the film. Similar to the opening of an Indiana Jones film, we start the film with Poirot on the tail end of a case he’s working in Jerusalem, where we learn just who he is and how he ticks. It’s a rather brilliant move by Branagh as a filmmaker that really gives the audience a clear understanding of Hercule Poirot, and the intricacies that make up his personality, while also setting the stage for the film’s tone and pace.
But unfortunately, from that scene on, the movie runs at too brisk a pace for its own good. The biggest problem with the film is that it never seems to really breathe once the murder aboard the Orient Express happens, making it hard to really get to know each of the suspects, and where each of them is coming from. As Branagh steals the film throughout, the rest of the cast is a blast, but they’re not given quite enough to do. It’s frustrating to have so much talent in one place and have them underutilized so heavily throughout. When you have a cast that includes Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Dame Judy Dench, Josh Gad, and so many more, you expect to see them put to great use. While many of them are good in their roles, it’s a bummer we don’t get to spend more time to really delve into the characters. Thankfully, both Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer are the exceptions to the role, as they standout amongst the rest. Even for their limited time on-screen, they leave a lasting impact, and you truly feel you get to know those characters. Depp as well is given ample time to shine, and this may be one of his best performances in sometime, as he’s not playing a caricature and he’s actually being a character. It’s a nice change of pace for what we’re used to with him, and here’s hoping he’ll do more like that down the line.
As the mystery unfolds for the audience, it moves quickly, almost at a breakneck pace that if the audience isn’t paying attention, they might miss exactly what’s going on. But Branagh’s Poirot is so entertaining, he keeps you captivated throughout, and if you’re locked into his performance the rest of the film’s problems really fall by the wayside. He’s constantly fun to watch, either in Poirot’s more eccentric ways, or when he becomes deadly serious about the situation at hand. Branagh just really squeezes everything he can out of the character, making him fascinating to watch on-screen. This is the kind of character that Branagh could really have some fun with over multiple films, so here’s hoping that he at least gets the chance to do another film.
As Branagh directed the film as well, it’s not shocking that it has a bit of a theatrical, and almost Shakespearian feel to the material. This is a very classic murder mystery in that sense, and Branagh really dives deep to make that work. It’s nice that he didn’t feel the need to update the film in some way or make it feel modern, because part of the charm of the story is the time it’s in, and the way it unfolds. Thankfully, they didn’t try to reinvent the film’s ending either, something that was a worry for many when the film was announced. This story has to play out exactly as it was written, and when Branagh goes for the ending, it’s a truly great revelation. It lands in a way that feels earned, honest, and shocking, while also being the almost obvious answer to the whole thing. It’s not an easy balance, but Branagh manages to really make the whole thing come together in a nice package that’s and easy to digest.
Murder on the Orient Express is a very classic feeling murder mystery film, and Branagh does a great job both in front of the camera as well as behind, bringing Agatha Christie’s novel brilliantly to life once more. While it’s not reinventing the wheel, that’s ok, because it’s still a very good adaptation in its own right. Branagh steals the film as Poirot, and while the rest of the cast doesn’t get to shine as brightly as he does, both Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer truly standout amongst the rest of the ensemble. This is a perfectly fine fall film that is both fun and fast paced. Fans of the novel are sure to have a good time, while newcomers are in for a treat with the film’s explosive twist ending. Go for the mystery, and stay for Branagh’s mustache, because it alone truly deserves its own Oscar.