Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
I have been waiting for an Agatha Christie adaptation for the big screen for a long time. And what an exciting thing that was to go to the theater. This ought to be an event for every Christie fan. This choice is not
really surprising considering Murder on the Orient Express is a very famous novel; there are a few novels in which she is well-known around the world and this is one of them. I will not do any comparing of this film with
any of the other film or TV adaptations of this famous novel.
The director and star of the film, Kenneth Branagh.
This movie, directed by Kenneth Branagh who also portrays Hercule Poirot, starts just perfectly. The setting is the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and the year is 1934. We have an overhead view of the wall before we cut to
Poirot waiting for breakfast. A young boy brings him two eggs. There's a problem. They're not the same size! Poirot measures them, shakes his head and dismisses the boy for another two eggs to be delivered. What a great
way to start the movie by introducing this character (our Belgian detective Poirot) to the moviegoer. Whether you've read an Agatha Christie book or not, or whether you've read one or many, this is a brilliant move of the
screenwriter's to tell us the type of person Poirot is. Screenwriter Michael Green has done his 'homework'. We already know Poirot is all about perfection and order. Poirot heads over to the Wailing Wall where we began and
on the street, his right foot steps onto an animal's droppings. So that the shoes match and that there's symmetry, he places his left foot on the animal's excrement. That put a smile on my face. Some readers might shudder
at the thought of Poirot soiling his shoes. Instead, this shows how Poirot values balance, keeping to that character trait of his. Poirot starts off the movie solving a crime (a theft) and already shows off his 'little grey
cells'. The novel begins in a similar fashion, having wrapped up a case and being called back to England. This opening already introduces to the moviegoer his character traits: an orderly, methodical, neat, and conceited
The victim Ratchett (Johnny Depp) enlists the help of Poirot (Kenneth Branagh).
Branagh does an admirable job portraying Poirot in the movie. Whether it was his own choice to have enormous mustaches for Poirot, or the opinion of the production designer, costume designer, or the makeup department, I
do not know. It puts a lot of people off seeing those big huge bird's wings on his face. It took me by surprise at first. But you get used to it, and Poirot is described in the very novel of this film by Agatha Christie
herself as Poirot having enormous mustaches. The character in the novels is described as having black hair, too. Sure, in the movie his hair has grey in it, but I certainly hope that viewers are not criticizing his portrayal
or the movie in general because of the way he looks. Kenneth Branagh's costume for Poirot is very clean and very gentlemanly and stays with the era the movie is set in. He complements the costume with a great walking stick
and also has his own way of walking.
Branagh has striking blue eyes in the film. And you know what? They don't need to be green like in the novels. Branagh's very blue eyes provide a great contrast with the white of the snow in the background or the dark
brown interior of the train. I wish people would stop bashing Kenneth Branagh until they see his portrayal in the film.
One critic complained that Branagh focuses too much on the Poirot character and that he showcases his own acting and portrayal over that of the supporting cast. In the Poirot stories, it's always been 'about Poirot'. (I
think that's one reason why Dame Agatha Christie got tired of the character.) Sure, it's hard to flesh out other characters/suspects in a movie compared to a novel. There are a lot of characters in the story and it is not
possible to spend time on every suspect's personality trait in the constrained time that any movie has.
The acting in this movie is superb. Johnny Depp is amazing as the victim Ratchett and gives a performance straight from an 'old-fashioned' gangster movie. He is completely believable as a frightening yet nervous man with an
evil nature. Dame Judi Dench as the cold and commanding Princess Dragomiroff is so terrific. She brings so much real emotion to her performance that you feel sadness along with her character for the suffering of the Armstrong
family. There is one particular scene between her and Poirot that sent chills up my spine. Mary Debenham is another cold, closed, and mysterious suspect on the train. This tight-lipped character was portrayed very well by
young Daisy Ridley and has given me hope of her acting abilities in the future. Willem Dafoe brings his acting craft (and clever craftiness to his performance) to the forefront of his character Hardman. Josh Gad is so serious
and emotional as Ratchett's secretary (I have a new admiration for his competence). Michelle Pfeiffer is the perfect choice for the intelligent, sexy, and terrified Mrs. Hubbard.
There are some less than stellar performances from others, however. The Count and Countess Andrenyi are portrayed terribly. The Count is a bully in the film with martial arts skills, able to take down a group of paparazzi
with one blow. In the novel, an aggressor he is not. Sergei Polunin's abysmal performance matches perfectly with the terrible acting of Lucy Boynton as Countess Helena Andrenyi. Her acting is completely ineffective in trying
to portray a suspect with a huge secret. She is a drug addict in the film and looks like a whore from the London slums.
Other changes to the characters include Arbuthnot and Pilar Estravados. The dangerous gentleman Arbuthnot is a combination of Colonel Arbuthnot (in the novel a light-skinned Englishman) and Dr. Constantine (a Greek man, not
a suspect in the novel who assists Poirot). He is portrayed by the capable Leslie Odom, Jr. The character of Pilar was excellently played by Penelope Cruz. In the novel she's a Swedish missionary named Ohlsson, but was changed
to be Spanish with (inexplicably) the name of a character from another Poirot novel, Hercule Poirot's Christmas.
The camera is used to great effect in the movie. Close-up shots of suspects' faces, their staring glares, and movements of their mouths speak emotion, betrayal or lies, or thoughts without words being spoken. The
cinematographer uses these shots to also tell the story and move things along without words. Much needs to be covered in the limited time of film. To keep the pace going, several tactics are employed. The camera is down at
ground level (ie: pointing at the wheels) showing the train in motion. Passage of time is employed with the characters outside of the train (in the novel, they are indoors the entire time the train is stuck in the snowdrift).
There are scenes outside as well to provide 'action'.
Being a current Hollywood movie, action is added as it seems to be a requisite in movies nowadays. It provides an interruption to the slow pace going on. Admit it,
interviewing suspects is a slow process and there are plenty of chapters in the novel where it's just Poirot interviewing people. Several people have criticized on social media that the movie is too slow. Well, it's a detective
story, not a war story. I will not elaborate the two key action scenes, but suffice it to say they add not only action but further the story along. The screenwriter has taken pieces from Christie's novel and embellished those
chapters with action. New information is revealed via conflict and struggle in the movie, whereas in the novel it's through conversation solely. The narrative is also quickened by joining later discoveries in the novel with
that from the earlier chapters. For example, the screenwriter lengthens the conversation between Poirot and the Andrenyis by combining a second interview much later in the novel with the first interview twelve chapters earlier.
Poirot looks at the scene of the murder, identifying various clues.
I mentioned the overhead shot of the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem at the very beginning of the movie. This camera angle is employed throughout the movie, to great effect in my opinion. One critic decried that camera view. I
think it's great. For example, when Poirot enters the dead man's compartment, we don't see what he sees. Only later are we shown the scene of the crime with the use of the overhead shot. It's very effective in showing
Ratchett's body on the bed with the stab wounds, the opened window, the table with the smashed watch, and the various clues lying about. It's like a completed puzzle--the big picture--and the various pieces of the puzzle are
pointed out to the moviegoer as Poirot investigates.
Poirot asks important questions.
There are some details to the mystery that are missed and some clues passed over quickly to move the story along. In the novel, Poirot makes a list of questions that he needs answered to solve Ratchett's murder. He lists
some of these questions to a suspect late in the movie, but Branagh doesn't place any importance to that and as Poirot he forgets the significance of certain clues. In fact, sometimes it seems Poirot forgets that he's in the
pursuit of the truth. Some clues revealed inadvertently by the suspects through a trap laid by Poirot or through carelessness in conversation were entirely left out of the script. I do find fault with the movie for its
sloppiness and negligence of leaving clues out.
The suspects hear the truth from Poirot.
I enjoyed the ending very much. I will not elaborate on that but only want to say that Poirot does his denouement in the classic style of all suspects gathered around to hear him reveal the truth. It's different in the
movie because he tests them. I will not say what it is, but it's clever and a testament to his little grey cells of his brain. The ending is handled neatly, justice is done, and it doesn't take forever to conclude the story.
HPC rates this film:
Out of 5 mustaches