I had rewatched the 70s version of Murder on the Orient Express a few days before viewing the current version. I thought it better to compare that way then to go backwards. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, And Then There Were None sticks out as a favorite, but I had forgotten the central mystery of Express, and was curious if the update would change the denouement or not. It was an interesting comparison to view the films so closely together and I think it may have helped my impression of the recent version.
Kenneth Branaugh (also the director) stars as Hercule Poirot, the famously brilliant mustachioed Belgian detective. He finds himself on the Orient Express traveling from Istanbul to London with a host of famous faces (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeifer, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz), one of whom perishes in the middle of the night, leading Poirot on a search for whodunit.
Where the first film relied on endless interrogation scenes, Branaugh ups the action ante by including chase scenes and gun battles, and the climactic jury scene with the revelation behind the murder, is set outside the cramped train car where most of the action takes place earlier in the film (and in the original). Filmmaking in general has become a lot more sophisticated in the forty-three years between versions and Branaugh uses myriad tricks to elevate the story: lush visuals, deeper characterization, heavier thematic weight. It all works well, and what could’ve been a boring and lackluster update feels big, classic and worthy of the stacked deck of actors (though poor, amazing Olivia Colman only gets a few lines and those are mostly in German).
It is faithful to the previous, but whereas the result in the original (and the novel really) felt interesting, if not entirely plausible, there’s a deeper reasoning and exploration given to it here, and it’s a credit to both Branaugh the actor and Branaugh the director that he is able to sell it more honestly here. Depp pulls from his accents of unknown origin arsenal for his disjointed Ratchett, but thankfully his presence isn’t dominant. The true force of the film comes in the form of Pfeifer who is delightful, engaging, grounded, and affecting in every one of the too-brief moments she spends on screen. Between this and Mother! her comeback is complete, now let’s see her in a vehicle that puts her back in the lead.
The quirky, fussy Poirot is a character that worked well for a time, but I never imagined he was poised for a comeback. Branaugh imbues him with new life and Murder makes a solid argument that he’s worthy of renewed attention, even hinting at a franchise future. It’s unexpected but not entirely unwelcome.
My Grade – B-