Review: Kenneth Branagh knows that modern viewers don’t fancy over-exposition in crime-mystery story as in Agatha Christie’s original whodunit classic, Murder on the Orient Express. Therefore, the actor/director adjusts the premise and crafts a more energetic, carefree version of the story which focuses more on the main protagonist, Hercule Poirot, more than anything else in the story.
Details are altered; but, the basic things are intact. The titular Orient Express still leaves from Istanbul to London during a cold winter; and, Poirot boards in the train along with dozen strangers. As the title might suggest, there’s a murder on board. The detective must solve the case by interrogating other passengers of the train before the train stops on the nearby station. Staged within limited area with limited access, Branagh presents a non-stop series of investigation that goes back and forth at full-speed. At that speed, we might get the illusion that the train (and the case) is going somewhere enticing; while it hasn’t actually moved a bit.
Casual viewers who neither read the novel nor watch Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version might find Branagh’s version rather amusing. One of the most important things to add up to that remark is Branagh’s depiction of the legendary Belgium detective. Compared to other portrayals of the character, Branagh’s persona is a more likable one. Poirot in the 2017 version is higher on parallels with Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes—a peculiar, savant figure with heightened attention to details—than he is with Albert Finney’s Poirot (who earned Finney an Oscar nomination for the role). Screen follows Branagh’s Poirot all the time and makes him the focal point while putting other characters blurred in the background.
There’s where Branagh’s Orient Express different from Lumet’s or, even, Christie’s. Comparison to Lumet’s version is inevitable, especially, in terms of exploring and exposing other characters. In Branagh’s version, screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant) doesn’t bother giving expositions to other passengers before the murder, ‘during the murder’, and during the investigation. Green’s script also neglects the most important planting in the story and changes it into a sudden revelation in medias res, which feels off as it comes in. There are red-herrings here and there, but, never feels attached to the story; and then, the final revelations feels like a discord, although presented in a sentimental manner.
Green’s script makes the star-studded character-driven mystery feels a little character-less. Some pattern characters seems away from the story. Johnny Depp’s Ratchett’s backstory along with his relations with his subordinates—MacQueen (Josh Gad) and Masteman (Derek Jacobi)—feel forced. Some other characters are underwritten, such as Willem Dafoe’s Hardman, Judi Dench’s Princess Dragomiroff, and the Andrenyi couple (Sergei Polunin and Sing Street’s Lucy Boynton). The most disappointing character goes to Penelope Cruz’ Pilar Estravados, who steps in to Ingrid Bergman’s position in all the wrong way. The best part is the notion of racial remarks as portrayed in the inclusion of p.o.c. characters, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s Marquez and Leslie Odom Jr.’s Dr. Arbuthnot, which unfortunately is involved in a clumsily written affair with Daisy Ridley’s (Rey from The Force Awakens) Mary Debenham. Only Hercule Poirot matters; that’s the key.
Branagh doesn’t bother with revelations that comes out of nowhere. He’s never the kind of director adroit to mystery thriller; but, he has penchant in the beauty of staging which he showcases brilliantly in Murder on the Orient Express. Call it the blockbuster take on Agatha Christie’s captivating murder mystery. Branagh doesn’t try to channel those expositions that makes the whole story captivating. Instead he’s making an entertainment out of the premise and, most importantly, cementing himself as a likable Poirot to secure future gigs.