Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express moves decisively away from its literary source as well as Sidney Lumet’s acclaimed film adaptation. Agatha Christie’s immensely popular Murder on the Orient Express is an audaciously plotted murder mystery that takes place on board the train. A venal businessman named Ratchett has been stabbed to death in his sleep, and everybody on the coach is suspect, from his secretary and valet to the British colonel and his lover. Unfortunately for the murderer, Hercule Poirot, the greatest detective ever born, is also a passenger.
Christie’s intricate plotting and pithily observed ensemble of characters were faithfully transported onto the screen by Lumet in 1974. Lumet’s version replicated much of the novel’s dialogue and plot twists. Albert Finney played Poirot, the Belgian with the pointy moustache, distinctive mannerisms and the tendency to lapse into caricature in his enthusiasm to hunt down wrongdoers.
Branagh’s movie is a pared-down, speeded-up version of the novel. That is both good and bad. The director also stars as Poirot, delivering a witty and charming performance as the detective who matches Sherlock Holmes in his unerring ability to distil the truth from seemingly random events and clues. The lengthy and suspenseful interrogations that provide Poirot vital clues to the murder have been trimmed, at the cost of losing the sure sense of anticipation that Christie creates on her pages and Lumet reproduces in his movie. The characters zip by rather than linger, and many of Poirot’s deductions are presented as brilliant guesswork rather than the result of those famed grey cells working overtime to crack a seemingly unsolvable killing.
Branagh’s version is altogether more light-hearted and fleet, clocking in at a crisp 114 minutes. Much of the running time is devoted to depicting his interpretation of Poirot, whose obsession with perfection and balance is revealed in the opening sequence set in Jerusalem. As Poirot boards the Orient Express, the star-studded cast floats into view, including Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley and Johnny Depp as the loathsome Ratchett. The cast has been well chosen but is severely underutilised. The brightest star in the galaxy remains Branagh, who exercises his privilege as director to the fullest.
One of the welcome updates in Michael Green’s screenplay is in the matter of race. Christie’s very British observations on the provenance of her characters have been replaced by a multiracial cast that better reflects the diversity of moviegoing audiences. Arbuthnot, for instance, isn’t an Army colonel any more but a black American doctor (Leslie Odom Jr) whose relationship with the white Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) has greater layers than the pairing in the novel.
The biggest change is in the characterisation of Poirot, who is more suave and attractive than in previous avatars. The movie centres around Branagh’s performance rather than Poirot’s brilliance, and benefits from the veteran actor’s complete investment in his character. The moustache is more luxuriant than before; the Belgian accent is put to good use; the complete lack of self-deprecation is played with a judicious mix of humour and respect.
However, Branagh’s consummate performance fails to even out the sheer lack of suspense and the poignancy of the reason for Ratchett’s death. The new movie has been handsomely shot and produced, but the raw punch produced by Christie in her extended climax is missing.
The movie seems to be in a great rush towards the sequel that is suggested at the end – a forthcoming adaptation of Christie’s Death on the Nile. Branagh makes for a fine Poirot, and perhaps the next time, he will settle for a leisurely cruise rather than an express tour.