The latest spin on Agatha Christie’s iconic novel, Murder on the Orient Express (2017), directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, is a fresh take on a story we have seen many times before. Dripping with atmospheric tension, and with stunning performances from an all-star cast (including that of Branagh himself, who plays Hercule Poirot, the famous detective that the story is centered around), this is one film that might just surprise you – and not just in the ‘whodunnit’ sense.
Right from the beginning of the film, it is clear that Branagh wants to portray Poirot’s constant struggle to find balance in all aspects of his life. Be it his breakfast eggs having to be perfectly even, or his having to step in cow poo twice just so he has some on each foot (possibly to counter-balance the inordinate amount of bull crap he has to listen to from his suspects, perhaps?), Poirot is always clawing for some kind of control. He was always an intriguing and, to be frank, peculiar character in Christie’s novels, so to see this often over-looked yet important detail being included is nice. Even Poirot’s appearance reflects this; with his perfectly symmetrical moustache and his centre-parting which runs directly down the middle of his hair, everything about his character and appearance looks to be on purpose – just as Poirot himself has the purpose of restoring balance from injustice.
Brannagh plays Poirot perfectly, getting everything, from Poirot’s mannerisms and quirks right down to his accent, spot on. His portrayal rather amusingly demonstrates Poirot’s verbal bluntness and clumsiness in a comical fashion; for instance, there is a moment where Poirot goes to tell a rabbi joke to a crowd of Jewish people before realising his mistake, and this of course leads to an equally comical apology in turn (apparently being from Belgium is an acceptable excuse?).
We also get to bear witness to Poirot’s habit of going off on tangents, which often leads to even more laughs for anyone watching, even during scenes of tension. Branagh really deserves credit for his dedication to the character, as while the rest of the cast also do a fantastic job, no-one quite manages to steal the scene from Branagh at any time. This is not necessarily a bad thing – especially considering he plays the lead character – but perhaps his spectacular performance could have been better-balanced with those of the other talented actors and actresses which feature, as to give them their time in the spotlight as well. Of course, the only thing to blame for this is the fact that Branagh is in the primary role. Giving too much insight into the other characters too soon, too, would ruin the surprise and the suspense of the murder mystery – so we inevitably must follow Poirot’s lead in uncovering the truth.
The vast majority of the film is set on a bridge among some snow-covered mountains, and it is beautiful. The suspension of the train above that insanely long drop is clearly meant to act as a metaphor for the suspense on the train between characters, and the train being stuck on the bridge helps to set the mood for the film, giving it real sense of entrapment. The cinematography on the train equally captures the tension of the situation, continuing to set the mood through the brilliant use of a claustrophobic mise-en-scène. Pretty bone-chilling stuff when you consider there is a killer on the loose – not to mention all that snow.
My biggest issue with Murder on the Orient Express is something that is consistently an issue for me throughout the entire ‘murder mystery’ genre, and it is not just with films. Any media within this genre, be it films, TV shows, novels, games – they always have this one major issue in common, and it is this: once you know who the killer is, the suspense and tension are gone for good. Any good ‘whodunnit’ worth its salt gives clues throughout, allowing the observer of the plot to work out who it is before they are shown who it is, and crafts the spectacle into a game for the audience – but this can be problematic, as once you work the mystery out, all that remains is for the loose ends to be knotted, and it’s over.
The suspension of the train above that insanely long drop is clearly meant to act as a metaphor for the suspense on the train between characters, and the train being stuck on the bridge helps to set the mood for the film, giving it real sense of entrapment.
Murder on the Orient Express does this kind of ‘whodunnit’ reveal spectacularly, with all of the plot twists and clues tying neatly together throughout the film. However, rewatching a film where you already know who the killer is inevitably removes the element of fun and surprise, and for some viewers, that can affect how much they will enjoy it upon repeated viewings. That doesn’t make it a bad film, nor one that cannot be enjoyed when watching it a second or a third time, but irreversibly the reveal of the killer will no longer have the same impact as it did initially.
As someone who has not seen previous adaptations, nor read the book, I thoroughly enjoyed the pleasant feeling of working it out before the big reveal, but I know that, whilst I will enjoy rewatching this film, I won’t get that same giddy feeling with this one again. But like I said before, the film itself isn’t to blame; it’s a fault of the genre that cannot be avoided.
In conclusion, as one might expect with such an all-star cast, Murder on the Orient Express is indeed a film worth watching. It’s the kind of film where those viewers who are in it just for the mystery may only want to watch it once (perhaps some wouldn’t watch it at all if they have already read the book or seen past versions), but avid movie watchers who enjoy films and can appreciate good film making will definitely enjoy it when rewatching it. You can take a look at the trailer above, and see what you make of it.
So few murder mystery films are as good as this one, and it is a pity. Of course, there is a good chance, should it happen, that the sequel hinted at the end may be one of those few films that are on the same level as this one – but we’ll have to wait and see for that.
This latest take on the Agatha Christie classic is mysterious, intriguing, and full of all-star talent. Even if you have seen previous versions or have read the book, the atmosphere and the tense acting will keep you engaged throughout – so definitely give it a try.