From Shakespeare adaptations to Hitchock homages to Frankenstein, once upon a time director Sir Kenneth Branagh’s primary focus was leading regal thespian ensembles in bringing back classics for a new generation. Over time he’s somehow transformed into a major-studio go-to for big-budget fare like Disney’s Cinderella do-over, the first Thor movie, and the unnecessary Jack Ryan prequel. His latest highly polished effort, a revival of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express, tries to bridge the gap between the two halves of his career — recruiting well-known faces to help him reacquaint an unfamiliar audience with one of the standards of the nearly dead mystery-movie genre. If nothing else, he’s also overseen a talented hair/makeup crew who bring us the Best Movie Mustache of the Year.
Full disclosure: I’ve never read any Christie novels or seen any adaptations of her work. The only thing I knew going into Branagh’s version is that the twist ending was spoiled for me decades ago by some long-forgotten humorist who thought it would be funny to joke about spoilers by citing Rosebud, Luke Skywalker’s father, and Orient Express‘ solution all in the same careless punchline, on the flawed assumption that everyone who mattered already knew how it ended. I wish I could remember the writer in question so I could tell him to his face that he was wrong and he sucks.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, which sounds to American ears like “airCUUUE pwaROE” and definitely has no ‘S’ in it, takes a fancy train ride from the Wailing Wall to Istanbul in hopes of heading onward to a much-deserved vacation. But our man realizes he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time when his commute is cut short by murder most foul. He has a locked-room mystery on his hands, an upper-class sleeper car full of suspects, a laundry list of weird clues, a limited time frame for investigation and interrogation, and the sort of forceful personality that guarantees he’ll crack the case or break his mustache trying.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Johnny Depp is an abusive scumbag and a lot of people want him dead. In a related story, he’s in Orient Express for a few minutes as the murder victim no one will miss — an ostensible art dealer with no taste, little civility, a bit of money, and a long list of enemies. Among the more famous faces who may have wanted him dead include a pushy Dame Judi Dench, fellow British acting royalty Sir Derek Jacobi as a humble servant, Michelle Pfeiffer in her best role in ages, the frequently guilty Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz as a horrified woman of faith, and Star Wars superhero Daisy Ridley as the strong-willed young woman.
Faces you might or might not know include Hamilton‘s Tony Award-winning Leslie Odom, Jr., as the nearest doctor; Josh Gad (Olaf from Frozen!) in a rare non-buffoonish role; and a criminally underused Olivia Colman as Dench’s German lackey (kind of a letdown for us Broadchurch fans). Extra credit if you recognize Lucy Boynton, the love interest from the great Sing Street, as a strung-out socialite.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Poirot is obsessed with balance. A place for everything, everything in its place, lies are evil, truth is good, and anything that comes in pairs should be identical or else it’s all garbage. As he works through this baffling case, Poirot struggles to reconcile disparate evidence and bizarre discoveries that seem to make no sense by any predictable model. Victory of a sort is only attained when he embraces the ideas that life is messy, solutions aren’t always tidy, lies can have a purpose, and sometimes the guilty may not always be Evil. Not that this last point leads to Poirot finding value in redemption, but we’ll come back to that.
Other morals along the way include but aren’t limited to:
* Racism is plainly dumb
* Drugs are bad
* Not all murders are equal
* Becoming an antique art dealer is not a casual hobby and requires years of formal training
* Mustache wax is like magic
Nitpicking? For an extended bottle episode in which everyone is trapped together and possibly sitting right next to a killer, Orient Express felt curiously devoid of tension. A few gratuitous moments of action attempt to liven things up like an actual suspense flick, but mostly everyone waits primly for their turn to have a go at Branagh. The train stalls for a while on the tracks and buys Poirot more time, but as a ticking deadline device it fails to loom. In my mind, even if the train had kept running smoothly, I imagine Poirot and/or the authorities would’ve merely detained everyone at the next stop until and unless the responsible parties were rooted out anyway.
With so many characters to juggle, not all the cast gets enough time to show off. I think Dench may have had more lines in Shakespeare in Love, and certainly more to do than sit and gripe.
But my biggest disappointment — and this may have just been me — was with the ending, largely preserved from Christie’s original. If you’re like me before I saw this and would prefer to avoid hypocritical spoilers straight ahead, skip the rest of this section and I’ll meet you after the next photo.
…so, about that part where all the murderers insist they killed a very, very bad man: well, yeah, he was. But it’s not like he escaped justice because he was arrested but exploited legal loopholes, or bought expensive lawyers, or engaged in sinister bribery, or took advantage of some other form of corruption. This horrible offender changed his name and hid. That’s it All you had to do was grab either Poirot or Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman from Da Vinci’s Demons) and yell in their ear, “THAT’S HIM! THAT’S THE GUY WHO MURDERED THE LITTLE ARMSTRONG GIRL! ARREST HIM!” Boom. Depp gets thrown in chains, goes to trial for about ten minutes, then dies wretchedly in the execution mechanism of everyone’s choice. Justice Is Served. Johnny Depp suffers. The End.
But no. Everyone wanted blood and they wanted it now by any means necessary, even if it required an extraordinarily well-timed group purchase of train tickets for a very specific railroad trip at the exact same time matching this villainous scoundrel’s itinerary, requiring everyone to start at the exact same point A thousands of miles away from home. After takeoff, their coordinated act amounts to impatient vigilante justice in the face of a system they haven’t even tried to work through. Call them the Parliament of Punishers.
And what is Poirot’s reaction? Poirot, the man of impeccable honor with a strict black-and-white worldview? After visibly painful deliberation it’s his ultimate opinion that all of them killed just this once, including the two of them (or more) with law enforcement or military backgrounds, but it was extremely difficult for them and they’re not really killers and they promise on a stack of Murder, She Wrote DVDs that they’ll never ever ever do it again, as long as no other human monster ever crosses their path. And on his perception of how their guilt doth wrack their calmness so, Poirot decides to help them all get away with it. In 1934 such a gray-area ending might have seemed revolutionary. In today’s entertainment world, all we ever get anymore are gray areas. Frankly, it’s a bit numbing and not the least bit of a “twist” ending in that regard. If you ask me, Poirot leading away the entire passenger list in chains would’ve made for one heck of a jaw-dropping surprise ending.
In a related spoiler, my son found it amusing that Dafoe’s short-lived subterfuge gets his character outed as a bona fide actor, but this complicated caper requires all the characters on board to be masterclass actors, or else risk their facades cracking right in Poirot’s face. Shame about all that money he probably wasted on acting lessons when he could have simply been taking notes from literally everyone else around him.
So what’s to like? One word: Branagh. I’ve never seen the classic version of Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet throughout thirteen seasons for Masterpiece Theater, so I have no basis for comparison between the two. All I know is Branagh’s stylized rendition conducts Poirot with a level of confidence, certainty, righteousness, and studied finickiness that we rarely see in our protagonists today. Maybe that’s why I found the ending such a letdown despite the mighty mustache. The final scene hints at an obvious sequel, which I wouldn’t mind at all if it meant more of Poirot showing how he’s different from, not the same as, all the lower-class gumshoes out there.
Among the assorted montages of beautiful mountainside scenery, the tracking-shot conversations watched from overhead vantages and left intact without modern split-second editing, and the pleasingly deafening sounds of that occasionally CGI choo-choo chugging along, a few of Poirot’s opponents are afforded memorable moments of capital-A Acting against him. Dafoe’s biggest scene shows us shades of subtlety he’s rarely afforded in other films where he’s always angry. Josh Gad proves he’s more than just a slightly luckier Belushi. And then there’s Michelle Pfeiffer at the end, keeping up appearances until grief and rage burst through at last, a supercharger the climax truly needed to balance out the mild-mannered tea-time chats that led to it.
Best of all, now I can say I’ve experienced another one of the classics I hadn’t before and no one can ever spoil it for me again.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Murder on the Orient Express, though the verbiage near the very end expresses gratitude toward the current rights holders of the likenesses of the real-life Orient Express that took its final Istanbul trip in 1977. For the first few minutes, fans of The Fabulous Baker Boys can enjoy “Never Forget“, a new song with lyrics by Branagh, sung by Michelle Pfeiffer, her first new number in a long time. Thankfully the lyrics aren’t quite spoilers.