Murder on the Orient Express – Film Review by Pat Viale
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Michael Green (screenplay by), Agatha Christie (based upon the novel by)
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe
Kenneth Branagh’s glossy remake of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is, like the curate’s egg, good in spots. The lush cinematography is a feast for the eyes, the cameo roles played by its stellar cast, including Judy Dench, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp and Derek Jacobi are perfectly pitched and the story is vintage Agatha Christie. Ironically, the problem is Branagh himself and his inconsistent portrayal of the iconic Hercule Poirot.
Maybe it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role after it was so was so perfectly captured by David Suchet in the TV series than ran from 1989 to 2013. Suchet’s fussy mannerisms and deadpan delivery seemed perfectly in keeping with Christie’s description of her hero. Though certainly an improvement on Albert Finney’s Poirot in the 1974 blockbuster version, Branagh seems erratic as to which aspects of Christie’s detective he wants to portray. Occasionally he shows the OCD quality of his character, repeatedly asking functionaries to straighten their ties, but there are scenes when his own hair and general appearance are less than tidy. In the early scenes we see him in bed wearing a small hairnet to protect his positive forest of a moustache, but later in the film this device seems to be forgotten. However, most jarring of all is watching Poirot mooning over a portrait of his lost love, Marguerite, in a pseudo French accent that would not be out of place in “’Allo, ‘allo”!
The film gets off to a truly dreadful start with the detective in Jerusalem solving a case involving a rabbi, a priest and an imam. (But relax, it does get better.) Here, we meet a more athletic Poirot than we might be used to, one who uses his cane to great effect, as he does again at a key point in the movie. In fact, Branagh’s Poirot, in a later scene, chases a suspect along a cantilever bridge over a deep ravine, making far more use of his acrobatic skills than of “the little grey cells” the detective often boasts about.
It is only when the train journey starts and we get to meet the other passengers that the film really comes to life. As the conman with a shady past, Johnny Depp steals every scene he appears in. He is alternately charming and menacing and it is easy to believe all that we learn of his character later in the film. Dame Judy, as the Princess Dragomiroff, is in “Queen Victoria mode”, suitably regal and bossy while Olivia Coleman is excellent as her flustered maid. Derek Jacobi as Depp’s man servant, gives a rounded and believable performance which is certainly the most moving of all the cameo roles.
Murder on the Orient Express is an entertaining romp whose main attraction is its galaxy of big screen stars. Most people will be familiar with the story and there is little else that’s new here. If you feel like an evening of mindless entertainment, seeing glamorous locations and celebrity spotting, this is the film for you.