Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Just released in the cinemas, this new adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel seems to be dividing critics and viewers. In fact, I have now been to see it twice – the first time with a friend who is a big fan of the book and really liked it, especially for its passionate depiction of the detective. I then saw it again with a different group of friends, all of whom found it disappointing and cold. What did I think and why the divergence of opinions? Well, here’s what I think really happened …

The best known screen adaption of the book is the star-studded version from 1974 starring Albert Finney, who for my money gives a rather absurd and certainly very mannered performance in the role. But the production values are wonderful, the music charming and the cast incredibly starry (Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins, Lauren Bacall, etc al). It was a huge hit in its day and sparked a whole new interest in Christie’s work as movie fodder. It has since been adapted several more times, once in an updated version with Alfred Molina from 2001 that nobody likes (me neither) and a period version with David Suchet. I didn’t like this one much either as I found the later episodes of his Poirot series on the whole much too somber and cheerless, especially when compared with the earlier years of the show.
The new film is set in 1934 and we begin in Jerusalem as Poirot is concluding a case there – this sets him up as an ultra-fastidious but humorous man, and one with an extraordinary moustache. Most of my friends were really worried about the bushy ornament on Branagh’s upper lip, but it is a thing of great beauty and you get used to it right away.

Poirot is then called on to another case and forced on to the celebrated train. This is introduced via a gigantic tracking shot in which we not only meet the vehicle itself but also all the passengers. It is a superb piece of bravura filmmaking, topped by a really funny exchange when Poirot has to meet his roommate.

At this point, you know that a character will be killed (‘Ratchett’ who is played here in very nasty mode by Johnny Depp) and the train blocked (atop a bridge after an avalanche via some pretty imaginative CGI); and Poirot, who desperately wants a rest, must in fact be an investigator again.

Most of us know the story and probably the solution to the the mystery too – so really, what we want to know is the treatment it receives. To cut to the chase, I saw this film twice, in a 70mm presentations in London, and thought it worked extremely well. The plot has been pared down to the bone so the narrative can be a bit choppy, it is true. But all the actors get their moment to shine (Michelle Pfeiffer is great, especially at the end, and I loved the exchange in German with Olivia Colman’s character) though it is Branagh who dominated throughout. With his magnificent moustaches and almost as marvellous silver-tipped cane, he is absolutely mesmerising as Poirot. By turns charmingly human when giggling at Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ or at his delight at finding two perfectly sized hardboiled eggs for breakfast, he is also a man torn about his mission in life and is just as convincing as a passionate and moral man who must confront all that he holds dear when he discovers the true nature of the crime. There are also references to his having a lost love that maybe don’t work so well, but they are restricted to a couple of brief solitary moments and are no big deal.

I’m sorry some of my friends didn’t go for it – I think they either had too strong a recollection of the 1974 movie, which is fun but utterly lacking in depth and human emotion; or didn’t go for some of the shortcuts imposed to keep the film under two hours and found Branagh’s trademark pacing, which does tend to be a little ‘off’ compared with most standard big budget productions (but it’s one of the things I like about his work). I understand that, but thought this version looked great (it was shot in 70mm), had a great cast (Daisy Ridley is also very good here) and managed to bring a very well-known story well and truly back to life with some subtle tweaks to reference the changes in society and the coming war in Europe that help make it work better for contemporary audiences without betraying the source.

Branagh deserves huge kudos in my view – his handling of the actors is as ever superb and his use of long takes and slightly unconventional approach to pacing (which some of my friends found irksome) give it a pleasingly different feel from the standard Hollywood product (it was in any case shot in the UK with some location shooting in Malta). And the closing credits have a song (by Patrick Doyle) sung by Michelle Pfeiffer too!

Me? I loved it and I hope you will too.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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60 Responses to Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

  1. I respect your view, but this is not going to be for me. Suchet is Poirot as far as I’m concerned and I just can’t handle the gloss of this – or that moustache… Each to his own!!

    • Well, there is the early Suchet Poirot, and there is later incarnation, with after 5 LITTLE PIGS (which i thought superb) got very, very hit and miss for me. If you like Branagh at all you should give this a go. Not sure what you mean by gloss though – the film is a lot less obsessed with clothes and decor than the Suchet ever was, honest ๐Ÿ™‚

      • I agree the later Suchets were mixed, but he just epitomises Poirot for me. Gloss – I guess I meant the over-the-top production values, the big star names and the dramatising it up. Mind you, I’m judging this from the trailer so it’s entirely possible I’m wrong! ๐Ÿ™‚

        • I liked the trailer a lot but it is not how the film plays at all frankly. Yes, they find ways to do a few scenes off the train once it gets stuck, but otherwise the focus is on dialogue and character. if you ever see it I’d love to know what you make of it as I had such differing reactions from different screenings with different friends. But I am a big Branagh fan, as an actor and director.

      • Christophe says:

        I share your opinion of the version of Five Little Pigs starring David Suchet: indeed superb!

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Sergio. I have to say, though, that I just can’t handle Branagh in that role. He’s talented, and it’s with all due respect. But he’s not Poirot. Still, I’m glad it was filmed so well, and that there was some depth and ‘meat’ to this incarnation.

  3. I have yet to see it but I have seen some reviewers say that the ending is a little hard to follow if you are one of the three people who doesn’t already know it. Did you have any MOTOE newbies with you and did they struggle with it at all?

    • One of my friends did also think this was true – but it is only true in the sense that some of the physical clues (like the red kimono and ratchet not speaking French) don’t pay off. Which is true (and I think is due to post-production trimming). But these are comparative trifles it seems to me – the basic set up and explanation works just fine.

      • Thanks. Perhaps if those moments were filmed they may turn up in the deleted scenes on the DVD release. The way the review I had read made it sound the uniniated would have no idea who had done it based on the editing which sounded hard to believe! I will look forward to seeing it in the not too distant future.

        • I think that would tend to exaggerate the issue – I do think, on home video a longer version would be a good idea if it exists (though to my knowledge none of Branagh’s films have ever had alternate versions released). But the impression I get is that if about 5 minutes were added to properly dovetail the plot, then a lot of viewers would be much happier. Obiously I am not one of those but I see their point ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I read MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS back in the 1960s when I binged on Agatha Christie books (a read over a dozen in a row!). I remember being surprised by the solution. I’ve seen the movies based on MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and will probably see this new Branagh remake.

  5. Mike says:

    Looking forward to seeing it at the weekend with the family – both big fans of Christie (personally I’m more of a dabbler, but I liked this one). Someone I was listening to criticised it for being old fashioned, which to be honest sounded perfect to me and I’m hoping for a slow burning suspense along the lines of THE LADY VANISHES. Thanks for the write-up, glad you enjoyed it.

  6. I will probably not see this until at some point it shows up online on Netflix or whatnot. I’m not really looking forward to it so I may not even see it at all. However, I respect your opinion, Sergio and that ALONE makes me think I might want to watch it at some point. (I’m being wishy-washy here because my view all along is that Johnny Depp should have played Poirot and Branagh was physically more the type to play Ratchett, the child killer.) Here’s a coincidence: last night I was with friends at their house for ‘dinner and a movie’ and we decided to watch the 1974 version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. I see you felt that Finney was too quirky in his interpretation, but I once again, I liked him in it. And once again I felt the musical score let me down. It was a fun night and wow, was it wonderful to see that splendid cast again. AND the wonderful setting. The film could use a color sprucing up though – surprised it hasn’t happened already.

    • I would be so curious to know what you make of it Yvette. It is overall very respectful of the novel and its intentions and the prior is very well re-created. Depp would not physically look right (too tall and think really … a fine Nick Charles though?). And there I was thinking everyone loves Richard Rodney Bennett’s score from he 1974 version! However, no matter what, I think this is preferable to the Suchet version, which i found quite dreary to be honest. And the Branagh film is never boring at least! I love the film version of Evil Under the Sun with Peter Ustinov – ever seen that one?

      • Todd Mason says:

        Depp puts me off, so casting him as the most vile character seems like good employment of him.

        • I do really like him in some things (well, usually the ones directed by Tim Burton) – and here I think is well cast, given what is being said about his lifestyle. There is a joke in which his character complains about people who love their pet dogs too much, which i assume was tongue-in-cheek …

      • Oh, I love EVIL UNDER THE SUN, Sergio! One of my faves. Even if it takes a few liberties with the book. LOVE the Cole Porter score – SO dreamy. And the scenery. The Suchet version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, I skipped. My brother told me it was grim and I knew instantly what he meant. No thanks. The later episodes in which Suchet is so darn grim that even his famous mustache droops were AWFUL. So sad, when compared to the lively and interesting first Poirot series. I can’t imagine, really, what they were thinking. Poirot was NEVER grim – well, rarely – in the books.

        If I see Branagh’s version it will be because of you, Sergio. ๐Ÿ™‚ Then I will definitely write about it.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    And, of course, the “real” Poirot is on the page…the adaptations are only that. It’s been decades since I’ve seen the 1974 film on tv, so I might just give this one a try…thanks for the nudge.

    • That is very kind of you Todd. When it comes to adaptation, I don;t mind strict or loose attempts as long as they work on their own merits. Bu then there are cases like PRIMARY COLORS where you know some of the changes (like Burton and Susan spending the night together) were made for the worst possible reasons

  8. le0pard13 says:

    Am so looking forward to this for the weekend. Rewatched Lumet’s 1974 version last weekend and the TV movie (season 12, episode 3) in ‘Agatha Christie’s Poirot’ series with David Suchet’s personification in preparation. Oh, and I finally read the novel in question. I’ve friends who thought upon seeing Branagh’s ‘stache in the trailers was beyond egregious, but I’m willing to let that go, if this works for me as I hope. Thanks for the prep, Sergio. ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. tracybham says:

    Glen and I are predisposed to like Branagh in just about anything, so we are definitely planning to see this movie, and I am very glad to hear that you liked it. We will also follow our standard plan to see if on Blu-ray when it comes out, so not for a while. Beyond reading the book, the Albert Finney version is the only one we have seen and we like that one just fine. Maybe I will read the book for the third time closer to viewing this version. It doesn’t matter though, I expect to like it.

    • I really hope you like it when the opportunity arises – fascinated by the mixed reactions (though it is always mildly perplexing, to say the least, when you see something you really like and people you respect seem to have a very different experience!ยฑ)

  10. John says:

    Sorry, but the mustache is absurd. I’m not sure I’ll get used to it, but I’m going to see this despite all the critical pans and all the railing about the facial hair. I’ve read only one newspaper review from start to finish (Peter Bradshaw’s in the Guardian) and it sounded very fair in its assessment though also extremely nitpicky about some plot elements created especially for this new a version

    You didn’t say anything about the anachronistic race talk that seems so entirely out of place in a Christie story. Was it as jarring to you as it was to Bradshaw? Conflating Colonel Arbuthnot with the doctor was a clever idea, but making him an African physician and retaining the Mary Debenham romance adds commentary that Christie never wrote about. That kind of stuff irritates the hell out of me. If I want to watch a movie about the troubles of interracial relationships I’ll seek that out. Christie never wrote about that. I don’t think she ever thought about it or cared about it. Why throw that into the murder mystery about a kidnapping and retribution?

    I’m primarily interested in seeing the performances from Dench, Colman, Cruz, Ridley and Pfeiffer. Apart from Branagh and Jacobi I don’t think much of the male casting at all. I used to enjoy Johnny Depp but he’s become practically a self-parody of himself now. All those stupid pirate movies ruined him and I prefer not to recall his embarrassing incarnation of Willy Wonka. I hear Josh Gad is the worst of the lot in this odd cast. I absolutely loathe him as an actor and hope he hardly has any screen time.

    • One gets used to the moustache really quickly John, honest ๐Ÿ™‚ All my friends were dreading it but it really wasn’t a problem. Well, I alluded to some updating for modern tastes and that was what I meant about some of the casting – but it is all addressed head on and doesn’t feel anachronistic but instead is put in the context of Britain not having the same anti-miscegenation laws as in the US. I think this is very sensible, especially as it is contrasted with the emerging situation in Europe (and as Christie was still putting anti-Semitic comments in her books into the 1930s and beyond, I didn’t have a problem with this at all). I really hope you enjoy the hell out of it chum ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Mathew Paust says:

    Tough an act as John’s is to follow, I’ll nonetheless brave against the momentum and confess that as a moviegoer I tend to revert emotionally and critically to a wistful adolescent, allowing only the very worst performances and productions to intrude upon the suspension of my disbelief. With that on the table I shall pledge wholeheartedly to see Branagh’s version of this classic soon as it hits the Hillside Cinema up the road a block from my domicile. And I expect to enjoy the living hell out of it–if only because I’m still in love with Michelle Pfeiffer after all these years. She could play Poirot with a Stalin ‘tache for all I care. I’ve seen the ’74 version a couple of times–years and years ago–and, of course, enjoyed it (or why would I have watched it the second time?), altho I can’t remember much about it. Nor have I read the book. {{{GASP}}} But intend to play catch-up and redeem my negligence in time for next Friday’s FFB.

    Meanwhile, thanks, Sergio, for a fascinating preview and reviews of the book’s film adaptations. For the record, I’m also a drooling fan of Daisy Ridley and Judy Dench, and an admirer of Richard Branagh’s work. Depp’s okay, too–sorry Todd.

  12. Colin says:

    As someone who likes Branagh, Depp, Pfeiffer, Dafoe etc, who feels no strong attachment to earlier versions, and who thinks that ‘tache is actually kind of cool, I’ll definitely be seeing this. I planned to go this weekend, and still may do so, but I’ve been a bit under the weather these last few days and could use the rest. If not this weekend, then the next one for sure.

  13. No, thank you. Not the cast, the ‘stache, plot adjustments, any of it. I’ll take the BOOK version, thank you.

  14. Sergio โ€“ Thanks for the review. This movie is on my To-See list, and I want to see it in the biggest theater with the biggest screen. The preview reminds me of movies I saw as a kid. And, as for mannered performances, it seems to me that is the best way to play Agatha Christie characters.

    • Not sure I agree on the latter comment ๐Ÿ™‚ though i think I know what you mean … Finney really did seem to get a bit dragged down by the tons of makeup he had to wear and to me seemed to go quite OTT when compared with most of the other thespians he was sharing the screen with. More like The Penguin in Batman sometimes! Branagh, despite an amazing ‘cache, is much more relaxed here and gives a wonderful and nuanced performance that is often highly comic all the same. Hope you really have a good time with it.

      • Whoa, Sergio โ€“ I laughed out loud at the Penguin comparison! Now Iโ€™ll never be able to watch the Finney film again without thinking of the Batman show. Man, that is just too funny!

        • Then I won’t tell you the full story of how David Suchet perfected his Poirot walk – let’s just say it involved a bit of a wedgie … ๐Ÿ™‚

          • Matt Paust says:

            Having just had my annual prostate exam yesterday, I’ll definitely pass on the Suchet Orient for fear of flashbacks to your comment, Sergio. But just today I read the book, and now am all the more looking forward to Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation–if it ever comes to the Hillside Theater. I might even be inclined to drive down-county should it appear at the York River Crossing cineplex before then.

          • Of the 4 versions of the book I have seen this strikes me as the one that most gives it its proper due. All the best mate ๐Ÿ˜€

  15. Brad says:

    I want to see it again, too, Sergio! I was surprised at how rich and moving the film was! What’s more, I’m showing DEATH ON THE NILE to my film class this week, and as I watch it for the 40th time, I think I’m excited to see what a more humanistic, less campy, treatment of this one might look like. The Suchet version was okay, but NILE always will deserve the big screen treatment.

    • I’m with you Brad – the film is doing pretty well so I hope Branagh does get to do it. As you say, it should be made for the big screen. I like the 1978 film a lot (and did sneak a look at the Blu-ray of it the other day) but it would be great to see it done again. Fingers crossed and I hope your class has a great time (I actually tend to prefer EVIL UNDER THE SUN nowadays – it has much of the same cast and the same plot as EVIL. Yes, the locations are less spectacular, no question, but I love the funny dialogue, the pace is brusquer, and it feels much less ghoulish (the depiction of the deaths in WVIL is pretty nasty and the flashbacks mean you get to see the blood spatter over and over again)

  16. Pingback: Film Notes: Murder on the Orient Express (2017), directed by Kenneth Branagh – A Crime is Afoot

  17. Pingback: Murder on the Orient Express (2017) โ€” Tipping My Fedora | By the Mighty Mumford

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