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It’s one of the most expensive, ballyhooed movies of this year, and certainly the most star-studded: Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie’s 1934 crime thriller. Director Branagh himself takes the lead role of Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and the production itself is spectacular and often visually breathtaking.
Branagh plays [Poirot] convincingly as pensive and faintly mournful, a man who wears his startling intuition like a shroud.
This is not to say the film is without its problems, but on the upside, Branagh’s reinvention of his character is a canny one, custom-built for our times. His Poirot is not the fussy, slightly comic little man that David Suchet created for TV; Branagh plays him convincingly as pensive and faintly mournful, a man who wears his startling intuition like a shroud. His moustache is a vast, resplendent thing that traverses most of his lower face; this Poirot is not a man ever likely to twirl it.
You’ll know the plot and its contrivances. Along with Poirot, a dozen strangers board the sumptuous train in Istanbul, heading for Calais. And here’s where the celebrity casting comes in. Many of them are stars so big their surnames will suffice: Cruz. Dench. Depp. Jacobi. Pfeiffer.
They mostly acquit themselves reasonably well: Dench, playing an imperious White Russian princess, certainly makes her mark, while Johnny Depp is convincing as a nasty piece of work – a mobster who dabbles in the art world. Yet it’s other names in the cast who shine brightest – Olivia Colman as Dench’s discreet maid, and Daisy Ridley as the young governess Mary Debenham.
At a certain juncture, high in ravishingly beautiful snowy wastes, the train is derailed by an avalanche. And it turns out that one of the dozen has been murdered in their own compartment. (The murder itself is staged surprisingly clumsily.) Still, that means there are 12 suspects, right there on board.
Curiously, one of the film’s most involving passages occurs before anyone even sets foot on the train. Its prologue (not in Christie’s novel, but devised by screenwriter Michael Green) is set in Jerusalem, where Poirot stagily solves a mystery surrounding a religious relic, which may have been stolen by one of three men – a priest, a rabbi and an imam. This may sound like the set-up to a corny joke, but the sequence serves to underline Poirot’s seriousness of intent – as well as his obsessive tendencies.
It’s all passable entertainment, yet there are built-in problems, and the casting is among them. Most of these big names have graced our movie screens for a good two decades or more, so their presence here suggests that Murder on the Orient Express is aiming at least partially at older audiences. Fine, but that demographic group is likely to have read Christie’s novel and seen the 1974 film starring Albert Finney. They will thus know who was murdered and by whom – which rather deflates the tension in this film.
His work done and the case solved, Poirot casually mentions he is departing for an assignment in Egypt. Does that mean we should expect a film adaptation of Christie’s Death on the Nile in a couple of years or so? You wouldn’t rule it out.