When it comes to some of the most famous authors of all time, Agatha Christie is undoubtedly one of the most legendary in that field. Over the span of several decades, the late English author was well-known for writing several classic mystery stories, so much so that she currently holds the record as the best-selling novelist of all time with over 2 billion copies of her work sold. And in her first novel, 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, readers were introduced to arguably her most famous creation, the Belgian detective known as Hercule Poirot. Poirot went on to appear in 33 of Christie’s novels, her 1930 play Black Coffee, and over 50 of her short stories. But as for the most famous story that he ever appeared in, that honor goes to Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express, in which the detective with the well-groomed mustache found himself dealing with, as the title suggests, a murder mystery onboard the titular Orient Express. This particular Christie story has already been adapted to the screen several times over the years, including a star-studded 1974 film adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet and an episode of the long-running British TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. But now Poirot is back on the big-screen once again in a brand new take on this iconic story, with Sir Kenneth Branagh taking on the role of the legendary detective. He also serves as the director of this new film which, like the 1974 adaptation, also features a star-studded cast. And overall, despite some of its shortcomings, this new version of Murder on the Orient Express does manage to be a solid adaptation of its source material.
As the film begins, we are introduced to the man himself, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), the most famous detective in the world. The year is 1933 and despite Poirot’s plans to go on holiday after his most recent case in Jerusalem, he receives a telegram demanding that he return to London to take on a new case. To get there, Poirot’s friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) offers him a compartment on the luxurious Orient Express, which Bouc has just been appointed the director of. Whilst onboard, Poirot is joined by an eclectic group of passengers, including young governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), American socialite Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), and immoral businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp). Ratchett ends up approaching Poirot and asks him to be his bodyguard as he fears that he’s in danger. Poirot refuses but, soon enough, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin from several stab wounds. When the Orient Express is forced to make an unscheduled pit stop due to an avalanche, Poirot quickly begins to investigate the cause of Ratchett’s death. Deducing that one of their fellow passengers was responsible for the crime, Poirot works tirelessly in order to figure out which one of them is the murderer. And as he soon finds out, this case ends up having some noticeable connections to a highly public kidnapping/murder case that had occurred a few years back.
Now, just a quick disclaimer; at the time that I’m writing this, I have not read the original Murder on the Orient Express novel. I also haven’t watched any of the previous adaptations of this story, which of course includes the last major feature film adaptation from 1974. And from what I’ve read online, comparisons between this film and its various predecessors have been quite common. Thus, given what I just said about my general unfamiliarity with the source material, unfortunately, I can’t really add much to that discussion. What I will say, though, is that Branagh does do a good job in making this film an engaging murder mystery, and because I didn’t really know anything about the plot before seeing it, it allowed me to go into the film without already knowing the final outcome. With that in mind, however, I am aware that some have been rather mixed on the ending, not because it changes anything (from what I’ve read, it seems like Branagh stayed generally faithful to the source material) but more in the case of how Branagh handles it as director. Some have felt that the ending diminishes the impact of the final reveal by way of how Poirot ultimately responds to it. And despite this being my first major experience with this classic murder mystery story, I will admit that I did find that the ending didn’t quite have the impact that it wanted to leave on the audience. Still, at the very least, the build-up to the final reveal is well-handled and the film is well-made on a technical level, benefitting especially from some great cinematography from Branagh regular Haris Zambarloukos that was shot on 65 mm film a la Dunkirk.
As noted earlier, the 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express featured an all-star cast that included the likes of Albert Finney in the role of Poirot, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, and Sean Connery just to name a few. The same applies to this new version as well, with names like Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, and Johnny Depp… and again, that’s just to name a few. And, of course, Kenneth Branagh not only directs the film but stars in it as well as the one and only Hercule Poirot. Branagh does a great job in the role, excellently conveying both Poirot’s wisdom and eccentric nature, two traits that very much help him when it comes to solving cases. As for the rest of the cast, they’re all great as well but they admittedly don’t have as much to work with compared to Branagh. Now, to be fair, it can be argued that this is just a consequence of being a story in which there are 12 primary suspects. Still, aside from a select few like Gad and Ridley’s characters, most of their roles in the film are basically just limited to one or two major scenes that they share with Poirot, who interrogates them all one at a time. Ultimately, though, if I had to pick the biggest standouts of the supporting cast, that would include Michelle Pfeiffer as the headstrong Mrs. Hubbard, Judi Dench as the pushy Princess Dragomiroff, and Leslie Odom Jr. as the often put-upon Dr. Arbuthnot.
So as I’ve made it clear, this film basically served as my introduction to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. As such, I can’t really say much about how this version of the story compares to other adaptations of it because simply put, I haven’t seen any of them. With that said, though, I am aware that some have been critical of this adaptation for not really doing anything new with the source material. And, of course, some have also taken issue with the ending, which I’ll admit is an argument that I do sort of agree with in terms of how it kind of lessens the final resolution of the main conflict. Still, for the most part, I found this to be a solidly made mystery thriller. While the plot does maintain a ‘slow burn’ style of pacing throughout, there is never a dull moment in this film. And like many of Branagh’s films (e.g. his remake of Cinderella and the first Thor film), this film does benefit from some solid production value, namely in regards to the cinematography, and an excellent ensemble cast. In short, if you’re like me and you’re not too familiar with the original source material going in, at the very least this film serves as a nice way of introducing newcomers to Christie’s work. And given that the film ends with a nod to another Poirot story, the potential is there for a sequel or two adapting other classic Christie novels. But if you are familiar with this story and the previous adaptations of it, this adaptation may seem a bit more questionable given everything that’s come before it. Overall, though, this film does succeed when it comes to being an entertaining popcorn flick that’s worth checking out on the big screen.