For a novel that’s been around since 1934, had seven incarnations in film, television, radio and even a computer game, and is simply a literary work of such notoriety, I must admit this 2017 film is my very first encounter not only with ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ but with Ms Agatha Christie herself - and I must admit, my interest is piqued.
For those, like myself, not familiar with the story... Belgian Hercule Poirot is the greatest and most famous detective in the world. While traveling from Istanbul to London on board the Orient Express, a first-class passenger is murdered. As a favour to his friend Mr Bouc, the director of the Orient Express, Poirot agrees to investigate the case. One by one, Poirot questions the first-class passengers to find the motive and culprit of this gruesome crime. But there are more questions than answers, so unlike Poirot’s perfectly even and monstrous moustache - and the scales of justice - not everything can end up fair and balanced.
Kenneth Branagh pulls triple duty here as director, star and puppeteer for that moustache. Just kidding - but seriously, have you seen that thing? It’s magnificent. While Branagh is the first Poirot to go to this magnitude for the facial affectation, it is in itself a gag in the film - although only for one scene - which does beg the question: why to this scale?
So the moustache is the first thing you notice; the second is the cast. It’s glorious. It’s beautiful. It’s charismatic. It’s too big. It’s too grand. No one gets enough play. What a waste. It takes half the film before Willem Dafoe even gets a line. Nobody puts Dame Judi Dench in a corner! Damn, Michelle Pfeiffer looks goooood for 59. Where was I going with this? Ah yes, it’s all too much. To fill that small a train with that much talent and give them almost nothing to do and nowhere to go is in itself a crime. Make no mistake, Poirot is the star of this show. He gets the best lines, the most action and is the most engaging character - he carries the film. Everyone else (literally) sits around, waiting to be called.
Make no mistake Poirot is the star of this show... Everyone else (literally) sits around, waiting to be called.
This is a murder mystery and it’s a good one at that, with a great ending. However, I can only assume it’s handled better in the novel because the centrepiece of information for this crime seems to be plucked out of thin air for the story to work, and once everything becomes hitched to this idea with its baffling origin, it’s hard to stay engaged.
The film starts out great, with some winks, nods and gags to get the audience on board, but that soon falls off and we’re left with the confined mystery that lies too much off camera. When it comes to murder mysteries audiences like to play along, but here we’re forced to the sidelines to merely watch. While Poirot is far more charming and affable than a Sherlock Holmes, at least Holmes inspires awe with his dizzying intellect while Branagh’s Poirot simply gets a “Wow, you’re great detective.”
With a magnificent cast (with little to do) in a very sharp-looking film (they just needed to perfect those obviously green screen exterior shots), Kenneth Branagh has taken a stab (get it!?) at Agatha Christie and can walk away happy. It’s a decent attempt that he may just get away with.