When I was younger, my girlfriend and I had a tradition. After we’d eat the Thanksgiving meal with my family (always served at 2 p.m.), we’d head up to the theater and see a movie. Last night, after the plates were cleared, the leftovers put away and the pie served, we decided to head out to the theater. To go with the nostalgic moment, it felt like the right movie to choose would be Murder on the Orient Express.
Having grown up reading Agatha Christie novels, this seemed like a perfect choice (and I’d already seen Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok). Being this wasn’t one of the blockbuster films of the weekend, it was tucked away in the last of the theater’s 20 screens, possibly the smallest theater, but it was full. And after sitting through way too many trailers, I leaned back in my recliner seat and was ready.
The story is possibly Christie’s most famous novel and features Hercule Poirot, a detective on the same level as Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, and Sam Spade. The story has been adapted a handful of times in the past. First there was a TV movie with Alfred Molina in the lead, as part of the British Poirot television series. Then it was adapted most famously in 1974 by director Sidney Lumet, who pulled together an all-star cast with Albert Finney as Poirot and a cast that included Sean Connery, Jon Gielgud, Laurne Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bissett, Michael York, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, and Vanessa Redgrave. It was a critical and financial success. It led to a string of other adaptations, including Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov as the quirky detective.
When 20th Century Fox decided to do a new adaptation, they obviously looked at the success of the 1974 film and and decided to not reinvent the wheel. They tapped Kenneth Branagh to direct and then later decided to have him lead the film as Poirot — a decision I can’t see anyone regretting.
Branagh dug deep into the character, scouring all of the detective’s story until he had a feel for the character, bringing things to the surface that we’d only seen hinted at. His eccentricities shown in other versions are recognized as OCD behavior and credited for part of his keen observation abilities. This is demonstrated for the viewer three times in the first few minutes — first with the necessity that his two egg breakfast be cooked exactly right and consist of two almost perfectly matched eggs. Then, while on his way to a big reveal he steps in horse manure. He is less bothered by smell and more by the imbalance, which he solves by stepping in the manure with his other shoe. And finally he knows who the thief is because he immediately noticed the one thing that was out of place — something someone with OCD would do. Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot carries with it the quirky brilliance you’d expect from the character, but also a lot of depth and heart that often gets buried.
The cast around him brought in great actors for every role. Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Coleman, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. With such a large cast and 12 suspects, it was necessary that what little screen time each character got had to be utilized well, and this cast did that. Each character appeared to be guilty and innocent at the same time. And the scene between Depp and Branagh, which is said to have been somewhat ad-libbed, shows how much all of the actors got into their characters.
What Branagh did behind the camera was equally impressive. Murder on the Orient Express is an old story told in a certain time period, and it was filmed with that in mind. Shot on 65mm film, the production used the last four cameras of their kind, to bring a rich, vibrant look to the film. It was shot on constructed sets meticulously meant to duplicate the famous train. Two tons of train cars were crafted and 20 LCD screens were placed around them to give the actors the sense they were on a movie train. The film is gorgeous and deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Branagh filmed it old-school, brought new found depth and heart to a well-known character, and wore what might be the most epic mustache in film history. Put all of that and the remarkable casting aside, the best decision made on this entire film is simply they decision to tell Agatha Christie’s story. They didn’t try to modernize it or change the ending. Didn’t try throwing in extra action or introduce a romance. The producers didn’t assume they knew what audiences wanted more than the original author did. Other than a few tweaks like making a character younger or combining two minor characters into one, they simply tell one of the best murder mysteries ever written. And at the end when they tease that Poirot is needed in Egypt, because a dead body had been found on the Nile River… I immediately hoped that Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green were sitting somewhere having dinner with a dog-eared copy of Death on the Nile sitting on the table between them.
Murder on the Orient Express is my favorite movie of 2017.