I’ve always wondered why Agatha Christie’s stories haven’t been made into more movies. Christie has penned some of the best murder mysteries ever written, and the fact that there is primarily only one of her stories that has been made into a significant motion picture is lamentable. Sure, there’s the BBC series starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, but the fact that Murder on the Orient Express is the only one of her stories that has been given a worthwhile silver screen adaptation is a serious shame. What’s even more of a shame, though, is that the second adaptation of this story, the 2017 version starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh, is something of a disgrace to the Christie name.
Murder on the Orient Express tells the tale of the famous, quirky, Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot and his unexpected case on a train. Poirot boards the Orient Express from Istanbul on a journey that traverses snowy mountains. During the ride, the train gets trapped under snow, and Poirot and the rest of the passengers are stuck on the train until workers can clear them out. After a dirty art dealer is murdered in the night, Poirot begins interrogating the other passengers on the train: the art dealer’s assistant, the conductor, a count and countess, a butler, a widow, a professor, a doctor, a car salesman, a princess, her maid, and a missionary. It’s a classic whodunit, and everyone’s a suspect.
The single best thing about Murder on the Orient Express is its cast. For every single one of the character descriptions above, an established, talented actor was cast. From Willem Dafoe to Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer to Johnny Depp, this movie is more loaded with talent than probably any film I’ve ever seen. Every part, from big to small, is not only played by a well-known actor, but each of those actors gives a performance that does more for the character than you could even imagine. When you get to the end of a movie and almost forget that people like Penelope Cruz and Judi Dench were in it because their performances were so subtle and nuanced, there’s something seriously special.
In the lead role, and probably the only developed character in the story, is Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot. Branagh serving as both director and star was my main concern for the film, as in the past, him doing so has proved to have both positive and negative results. Unfortunately, this film can be added to the pile of negative results. From the over-the-top adaptation of Poirot’s mustache to the hokey comedy he attempted, Branagh just tried to do too much with this character, both as a director and as an actor. The result was that Poirot’s most charming and sometimes adorable characteristics were diminished by the more extreme ones Branagh created, rather than adapted. Branagh foolishly and amateurishly tried to make Hercule Poirot into Sherlock Holmes, ruining all the best characteristics that makes Poirot such a memorable super-sleuth.
Botching such a signature and memorable character the way he did was unfortunately not a singular mistake. With the nature of this story, and nearly every Poirot story for that matter, the mustached sleuth is such a central figure that the way he is portrayed affects the entire story. The result was that the whole movie was plagued with the same goofiness and extremism that Branagh put into the protagonist. The tonal structure of this movie is disastrously all over the place, with us never being able to figure out what it’s trying to do in each scene. Perhaps the most disastrous element of this, though, is that since Branagh puts so much focus on his character, the mistakes he makes there begins to overshadow the quality work being done by the rest of this exemplary cast. It’s just bad directing.
The only redeeming quality of this 2017 Murder on the Orient Express is something that happened in 1934, when Agatha Christie wrote the novel. This murder mystery is just such a brilliant story, that despite Branagh’s best efforts, it’s nearly impossible to spoil a story that is as cleverly and perfectly crafted as this one. Granted, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green did tweak the story in some places, mostly to exaggerate the character of Poirot. Thankfully, none of their changes were enough to spoil this amazing story.
Murder on the Orient Express is a story that needs to be heard by everyone, simply because it’s one of the best ever told. But please, please, don’t let this movie be the first time you hear, read, or see it. Read Christie’s novel, or watch the 1974 film adaptation – a movie that does the story accurate justice. In fact, I might just do that tonight to make up for the tragedy I just witnessed.
I give Murder on the Orient Express a 6.4/10.