It’s a multiplex mystery: Who killed the whodunit? Writing at Cracked, David Christopher Bell named 2001’s “Gosford Park” the last good whodunit film. I would add Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz” (2007) to his depressingly short list of such movies that appeared this millennium. In an era where even the 1985 flop “Clue” (based on the board game) is remembered fondly by fans of the genre starved for big-screen content, perhaps we should be grateful to see one up there at all, even a repeat performance.
That’s the other mystery hovering over the new “Murder on the Orient Express”: Why? It already exists as a perfectly entertaining, if slightly inert, 1974 movie starring Albert Finney as Agatha Christie’s famous creation, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Chalk up “Murder’s” inexplicable existence to the ingenuity and independent spirit of actor-director Kenneth Branagh, whose quirky career as a film actor and director ranges from Shakespeare to Thor to “Wild Wild West.” Branagh both directs “Murder on the Orient Express” and stars as Poirot.
Probably everyone knows the set-up, and the solution. There are no spoilers here, if one can actually “spoil” a 43-year-old movie, made from an 83-year-old book, by one of the best-selling authors in history. Poirot joins a dozen other passengers on the luxury long-distance train The Orient Express, making its way across Europe. A murder occurs, a convenient avalanche leaves the passengers stuck with the killer on board, and it’s up to Poirot to solve the seemingly impossible crime.
Bell provided a useful definition of a properly executed whodunit: “At its purest, it takes place in a small location, preferably with characters who are unable to leave. There should be at least one mustache.” Or in the case of Branagh’s Poirot, several, all worn at the same time.
Since We All Know the Plot, It’s About Execution
The original 1974 all-star cast lent interest to the sometimes staid proceedings, and the new version also features a murderers’ row of stars. But it has a problem of its own: The ending is just too memorable. I have the dubious ability to reread mysteries because I’ve forgotten the solutions. That won’t work with “Murder on the Orient Express.”
Departing from the book, the new “Orient” opens in Jerusalem with a literally jokey scene in which a fussy, perhaps obsessive-compulsive Poirot solves a minor puzzle involving a priest, an imam, and a rabbi. Poirot then fatefully boards the Orient Express in Istanbul, before murder and avalanche intervene.
A few scenes in the middle try to ratchet up the menace and tension, and Branagh shoots his suspects through beveled train windows, the distortion meant to cast suspicion. Screenwriter Michael Green collapses two characters into one, changes some names, and switches around some nationalities, but otherwise everyone from the book is on board. Judy Dench notably stars as the imposing Princess Dragomiroff, who epitomizes Christie’s underrated touch for memorable characterization.
The filmmakers’ decision to make Dr. Arbuthnot black lends some sharpness to the secret romance between him and another passenger, given the fraught status of interracial relationships in the 1930s. A poignant child-napping crime (a loose retelling of the then-notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping) again features heavily.
But interplay is limited among the “strangers on the train.” The talented actors are trapped in the passive machinations of the plot, not given much to do but wait passively for Poirot to summon them. Daisy Ridley is pleasing as governess Mary Debenham, and Michelle Pfeiffer has a nice emotional take on Mrs. Hubbard who, like the other characters, is not who she seems. Penelope Cruz plays the missionary character, less befuddled and darker than Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning 1974 portrayal.
Johnny Depp is mumbling but menacing as the sinister art dealer M. Ratchett, who tries to hire Poirot to protect himself from an unidentified “enemy.” Soon enough, Ratchett (an alias) is gruesomely stabbed to death in his cabin. Poirot confronts the “riot of clues” left for him and susses out the guilty party, though not before some un-Poirot-like emotional turmoil, as the details of the case put the detective’s precise moral scales out of tilt.
Some Experiments with Depiction Succeed, Others Fail
Branagh as director made the perhaps unwise decision to open up the proceedings, shot in Malta and England on 65mm film. He leaves the train to mount a half-hearted gunplay scene in the snow, and there’s an odd interrogation on a freezing platform. Some of his cinematic choices flop, like the birds-eye view of the murder scene, which is distracting without adding anything sinister.
But some experiments work, like the final showdown with the gathered suspects, shifted from a predictable denouement in the dining car to a snowy train tunnel, where the dozen passenger-suspects are arranged Last Supper-style across a train trestle serving as a table. Still, a little more claustrophobia may have boosted the suspense. It doesn’t always feel like we’re on a tight train with a killer.
Now we must deal with the mustache in the room. Branagh told the AARP magazine, “It’s like something on the front of a car; he leads with it…It makes him more robustly bulldoggish in pursuit of crime.” It’s not as distracting as feared, though there’s a rumor it has already earned its own SAG card.
A New Poirot to Rate and Compare
So how does Branagh’s Poirot rate? I would put his rendering over Albert Finney’s 1974 version, a collection of cartoonish eccentricities and wigs, but behind the flamboyant, less tortured Peter Ustinov, who appeared as Poirot on both the big and small screen in the 1970s and 1980s. David Suchet, star of the long-running ITV series, is in his own category.
Branagh’s Poirot also maintains the touchstones of the character: He is arrogant and finicky, but with more specifically obsessive-compulsive tics, like the neurotic need for perfect balance in all things. He’s also provided a poignant backstory involving a lost love; his Poirot even delivers soliloquies.
The snowy scenes, computer-generated or not, provide atmosphere, and some of Branagh’s directorial ideas are effective, like that final tunnel confrontation, and the near black-and-white tones in the flashback solution to the actual murder of “Ratchett.” By the end the tortured moralist Poirot finds his trademark certitude shattered. The sight of our haughty, fussy, but generally cheery detective holding a gun not in cool analysis but in anger, was a novelty. There was even some humbling character development for Poirot as the film progressed.
But his dramatic solving of the case leans more on emotion and less on the character’s trademark analytical parsing of clues. The emphasis is on psychology and the problem of evil, which means the story is not as rollicking as it could have been. Still, while not particularly exciting or original, the very existence of a murder mystery in a movie theatre in 2017 (and the promise of another Christie adaptation this Christmas, “Crooked House”) shows the genre’s corpse at least still twitching.