As a huge Agatha Christie fan, I was both equal parts excited and nervous about the news that this Hercule Poirot classic was to be adapted by for the big screen once more, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh and featuring an all-star cast. Murder on the Orient Express was, as it is for most people, my first foray into the world of Christie’s mysteries, and sparked a love for her writing and the characters that she creates. I have devoured a large percentage of her written work, enjoyed numerous film and television adaptations, read extensively about her life and even wrote my Masters dissertation on her lasting impact within the literary world, and so the thought of her work being altered in some way often fills me with a quiet sense of dread.
However, when the trailer for Branagh’s remake was released a few months ago, I decided to stop being so stubborn and give it a chance. In my eyes, David Suchet is Poirot, and so the thought of anyone else taking on that iconic role was somewhat difficult to get my head around, but the more I watched the trailer, the more excited I became. The film opened in UK cinemas on Friday 3rd November, and so off I went to a quiet afternoon showing, not being able to wait any longer than I had to for my Agatha Christie fix!
First of all, we need to talk about the casting. As I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t initially sold on the idea of Kenneth Branagh portraying our detective, Hercule Poirot, and it took me a little while to warm to him in the role while watching. The opening scenes are relatively light and comedic, exaggerating Poirot’s desire to have everything neat and orderly and exactly right. While this did provide a nice and easy start to what is otherwise a rather dark film, I felt that it made Poirot into a caricature, over-the-top in a way that is commonplace within film and television adaptations, and consequently I wasn’t too sure about how I would warm to him throughout the film.
However, as soon as we, along with Poirot and the other passengers, board the grand Orient Express, the tone of the film completely alters and becomes something more dark and sinister. Branagh plays this Poirot, the detective hellbent on discovering the truth once and for all, absolutely perfectly. The Poirot that we all know and love is there, but in a way that feels more modern, more pacy and less ‘cosy’ than the originals while still maintaining Christie’s original feel. He is not so much the detective who, in the novel, ‘sits back and thinks’. This is a Poirot who cannot, will not, rest until the truth is uncovered, and Branagh’s Poirot is perfectly fitting with the overall pace and tone of the film.
I also enjoyed the way in which the audience gets to know Poirot on a deeper level throughout the film, again in a way that is somewhat absent within the novel. There is mention of Poirot’s past, his career and his past love, and these small additions to his backstory help to build him into a deeper character rather than that of simply ‘the detective’. I loved the way in which, as the mystery unfolded and the truth came to light, Poirot struggled with coming to terms with what is right and wrong, and the grey area in between. The case clearly makes him question his long-held beliefs on justice and the law, coming to a head in a dramatic scene towards the end, and it left me with a lot to think about after the film had ended.
Not only was Branagh himself absolutely fantastic, but the rest of the cast, too, put on a flawless performance. Again I am often slightly wary of all-star casts, as I do necessarily think that the more famous names a film has, the greater it will be, but in this case it completely worked. There are so many big names and familiar faces, such as Dame Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer and Penélope Cruz, to name but a few, but rather than taking away from the film and overshadowing the plot, they each added to it. Complementing each other wonderfully, no actor overshadows the other, each getting their turn to be the focus. Daisy Ridley did a fantastic job, and had a few particularly memorable scenes, and Josh Gad was also brilliant in a role much darker and more serious than his Frozen counterpart. Johnny Depp played a fantastic villain in American gangster Ratchett, although admittedly Depp is not a favourite actor of mine, and despite his performance I was somewhat glad about his limited amount of screen time.
I was pleased to see that the adaptation stuck extremely close to the source material, with very little differences in plot. Christie is, to me, the queen of Golden Age detective fiction, and ‘cosy crime’ in particular, and I have noticed as of late than many recent adaptations have opted for a much darker, grittier take on her work than the original novels suggest. For example, the BBC’s And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution were extremely dark, featuring more blood, gore and violence than you would typically associate with a Christie mystery. I can understand the reasoning behind this; at a time when crime books, films and television series are so widely loved, of course there is a need to update and adapt Christie’s work to make it better appeal to a modern audience, who demand a more thrilling ride rather than a quiet and cosy mystery to puzzle over. While I loved the BBC adaptations, and can appreciate them as a way to introduce new readers and viewers to Christie’s extensive bibliography, this new Murder on the Orient Express adaptation felt so comfortingly Christie and a real return to her vintage detective stories. That’s not to say that it is without its thrills, it just feels so very authentic and true to the novel while also amping up the darker tone in a way to better appeal to a new audience. I can see this film being a great introduction to Christie’s work, while also delighting older fans with its closeness to the book on which it is based.
“There is something about a tangle of strangers pressed together for days with nothing in common but the need to go from one place to another and never see each other again.”
For me, this was an excellent Christie adaptation, and I am so glad that I gave it a chance. It feels like the perfect Sunday afternoon family film, which I’m sure both young and old will enjoy, and I’m already planning on a second cinema trip before it takes its leave from the big screen. I cannot wait to own a copy on DVD, as to me it has the makings of a classic, a favourite to be returned to again and again when in need of comfort. Even if you don’t think this is a film for you, I highly recommend that you give it a watch. You may be just as surprised as I was.