My first introduction to Agatha Christie was on Christmas Day 2007. My uncle gave ten-year-old me one of her novels with the inscription, “This is widely considered Christie’s best book, because she reinvented the classic mystery novel with one of the greatest twists of all time.” I have read over eighty Agatha Christie novels since, and my uncle’s words are still true: Murder on the Orient Express is not only the best Christie book, but possibly the greatest murder mystery ever written. So when I heard that they were making a cinematic adaptation with a cast that included Kenneth Branaugh, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Judi Dench, saying that I was excited would be a vast understatement. Unfortunately, while the film is well-shot and well-acted, it falls woefully short of the source material’s brilliance.
Orient Express presents a star-studded cast, most of whom give excellent performances. The film’s cinematography is brilliant. Breathtaking visuals juxtapose the stark austerity of the snow-covered landscape with the opulent coziness of the train’s interior. Director Kenneth Branaugh, who also stars as Poirot clearly has an eye for unconventional camera angles, as several scenes are shot using techniques that convey the claustrophobic atmosphere of the original novel. One particular scene allows the camera to follow along the outside of the train as the characters walk through its corridors; the scene’s technique creates a separation from the characters that mirrors Poirot’s detachment from his fellow passengers, while simultaneously allowing the audience to preview the suspects, the victim, and the scene of the crime.
The plot suffers from some tacked-on, erratically paced action scenes that seem designed to keep the audience’s attention but only serve to interrupt the flow and suspense of the underlying story. (The train bridge attack sequence, in particular, is badly shot, obscuring both characters and geographical perspective for rapid cutting and a misplaced, frenetic pace). Some added scenes feel pasted in to allow some of the more famous actors more screen time–an early scene between Rachett (Johnny Depp) and Poirot drags on far past its usefulness in establishing tension between the characters. The film works best when it hews to the book — the pacing of the narrative allows for suspense to build and build as we anxiously wait for Detective Poirot’s finalsolution. And the final twist (which I obviously won’t spoil) packs more of a punch on screen as compared to the novel; in the theater, you can watch the characters react alongside you.
But Branaugh’s vision, however, ultimately falls short of being an excellent adaptation. In the end, despite grasping and successfully conveying the tension and mood of the story, Branaugh is unable to build the necessary empathy for the characters. The original Murder on the Orient Express has characters who, despite stereotypical first impressions, reveal themselves to have remarkable hidden depths, which allows the ending to work as well as it does. Despite the talented cast, few characters in the film convey a true emotion—the character building is skipped to make time for red herrings and random chase scenes.
Branaugh’s Poirot suffers from a different problem—he is a mix of too many characterizations, as Branaugh portrays him as a comedic foreign stereotype, an over-dramatic detective who’s interviewing tactics would not be out of place in an episode of Law and Order, and,most absurdly, a romantic object of tragic love. It isn’t necessary for Poirot to stare longingly at a photo in order for the audience to connect with him; however, when that is all the dramatic heft he has, the scenes feel tacked on in a bad attempt to humanize the great detective. The original Poirot was certainly complex—but Branaugh’s character just feels overstuffed to the point of absurdity.
On the other hand, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Daisy Ridley all exceed their material with truly heart wrenching performances. Daisy Ridley, despite her newcomer position, holds herself with the confidence necessary to compete with her acclaimed castmates. Her chemistry with Odom Jr also gives rise to a wonderful romantic subplot in the film, which elevates their characters out of the one-note interrogation scenes. Pfeiffer seems to relish in the “dumb blonde” trope before brilliantly eschewing that persona for one of the most moving scenes in the film. And Judi Dench reverts to her typecast, infusing her Countess with all of the autocratic, aristocratic dignity expected from this tremendous character actress.
Murder on the Orient Express is not a bad film–it’s just that it could have been a much better one. The film is a visual and tonal accomplishment, but does not provide the narrative heart that gave Agatha Christie her outstanding reputation.