Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most well-trod stories of cinematic history. There are, including made for TV adaptations, at least four previous versions of the classic whodunnit, not counting the homages and indirect adaptations that have graced televisions screens over innumerable episodes of mystery shows throughout the years. This naturally invites a simple, but exceedingly relevant question about director Kenneth Branagh’s latest adaptation: Why?
Though we cannot presume to understand the inner workings of Branagh as an artist, I suspect the answer is as simple as, “Why not?” Watching Murder on the Orient Express, one gets the impression that Branagh made this film for an audience of exactly one: himself. Anything else you might feel the need to say about the film is moot in the face of this reality. Necessity be damned, this is a film that exists solely at the pleasure of its maker, never mind what you might feel.
Branagh has a history of adapting classic works and casting himself as the star. He played Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein; Hamlet in Hamlet; Macbeth in Macbeth; Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing; Henry V in Henry V. It’s no surprise, then, that he’d cast himself as Christie’s Hercule Poirot, that dapper, Holmesian Belgian known for his eye for detail and, of course, his mustache.
It would be easy to take offense at the audacity if Branagh wasn’t so faithful in his aims. Faithfulness is, of course, a less objective metric than you might want to believe—there are those who might scoff at the bombast of his mustache or extravagance of his design—but Branagh is nothing if not a master at blending his vision with that of his adaptee. Though his Poirot is a bit more whimsical than the Poirots that came before him—witness his delighted giggles reading A Tale of Two Cities—the attributes of the character that so many have come to love are still there.
The polite arrogance, the nose for subtlety, the meticulousness. The spin may be new, but the essence abounds, and Branagh is 100% earnest in his efforts—both in his portrayal and as director. Branagh has never been one to constrain his vision, and here he tends toward the extremities of flamboyance. Some might be put off by the stylistic flourishes and visual embellishments he puts on Murder on the Orient Express, but as a vision they definitely work.
Branagh accentuates the lushness of the Orient Express and its passengers, creating an aura of the utmost of luxury and all its trappings. Some might balk at the gaudy display, believing, somehow, that it detracts from the central mystery of the narrative, but, for me, it added to the feel of the story. The design of both sets and costumes brings to life the posh grandeur of the characters that inhabit Christie’s story, making the story dance off the screen.
This works well with Branagh’s sweeping cinematic sensibilities. Murder on the Orient Express is littered with breathtaking wide shots and kinetic camerawork (which, interestingly, mostly stop once the train becomes snowbound). Branagh’s vision is huge, but not so huge that it swallows Christie’s narrative. Here, the balance is struck between the opulence of Branagh’s design and the relatively confined nature of the mystery.
In the end, it comes down to character, and each of Christie’s dozen characters are given glorious life by Branagh’s cast. Though no character is given as much to work with as Poirot, the star-studded cast of Murder on the Orient Express repays their small investments in dividends. Standout among them are Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley as Caroline Hubbard and Mary Debenham, respectively. That’s no surprise for Pfeiffer, who is and has always been capable of brilliance, but Ridley effectively puts to bed any idea anyone might have had about her abilities. She may be etched into history as the new face of Star Wars, but Ridley proves her she can hold her own in smaller scale stories.
Standouts, certainly, but Pfeiffer and Ridley are far from alone in their efforts, and each cast member, from Dame Judi Dench to Willem Dafoe, cast their own particular light on the story, bringing new angles to the story even if, like so many of us do, you already know whodunnit. Chalk it up to Branagh’s history with the stage. Murder on the Orient Express feels less like an unnecessary remake than a uniquely new production, worth seeing if for no other reason than to see just what, exactly, he did with it.
Whether you’re already familiar with Christie’s story or this is your first time aboard the Orient Express, Branagh delivers something worth watching. He may have made this movie in service of himself and his particular tastes, but it’s not hard to go along on his ride. As much fun as he seemed to have playing Poirot, hopefully we’ll get the chance to see him take up the ‘stache another time. He’s certainly got more than enough stories to work with, and he’s certainly proven himself capable.
Murder on the Orient Express is now playing in theaters everywhere.