I read my first Agatha Christie novel when I was eleven. By now I’ve read dozens, and while I always enjoy them, most have long since blended in my head, like half-forgotten Friends episodes or various bad Christmases. Murder on the Orient Express, however, is one of those mysteries that you never forget the solution to.
That being said, my interest in Kenneth Branagh’s take on the classic novel was mild. Perhaps Imagine Dragons wasn’t quite filling me with confidence, I don’t know. Still, Mekaela and I are suckers for murder mysteries (she’s an even bigger Christie fan than I am), so it’s probably no surprise that we decided to check out the adaptation last week, despite some reservations.
And it’s . . . okay? It’s serviceable. But it could totally be better.
Despite the fact that the novel is over 80 years old, I try not to spoil classic mysteries if I can help it. So, you’ll find no spoilers here for book or movie until the aptly named Spoiler Section.
Also, I’m going to spend a lot of time comparing this movie to the original novel, and also to the BBC/PBS adaptation with David Suchet. If that’s going to annoy you, please just go read a different review.
1. Here’s the most important thing you need to know about this movie: Imagine Dragons did not actually feature anywhere in it. I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed by this. Probably both.
2. The best thing Murder on the Orient Express has going for it, by far, is the cast.
Of course, even that has a caveat because Johnny Depp. Goddamn it, Depp. How I used to adore you. It’s hard finding out that people you admire are actually abusive scumbags, although after 2017–Our Year of Horror and Perpetual Despair–you’d think we be used to it. Anyway, so Depp’s in this, which is unfortunate. I mean, as an actor he’s fine. Depp makes the occasional eye twitch that threatens to bloom into his signature brand of quirky overacting, but unlike Tim Burton, Branagh appears mostly able to reign that shit in. I even chuckled at one of Depp’s lines, despite myself. But performance isn’t everything. It can’t be.
Still, the rest of the cast is wonderful. I mean, look at these people: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, etc. This cast is packed with talent, and while that’s never a bad thing, it’s an especially great thing for a murder mystery. It’s pretty easy to solve a mystery when you’ve got, like, four B-list actors and rising phenomenon Daisy Ridley as suspects. Like, gee, I wonder who could’ve done it. But a cast like this, I mean, is Dame Judi Dench really getting out of bed just to be a red herring? What about Michelle Pfeiffer? And Willem Dafoe, we all know you can’t trust that shifty fucker, right? It’s always nice when you can’t just solve a mystery by pointing at the most likely actor.
3. I also have to highlight Tom Bateman as Bouc, who ended up being a goddamn delight. It’s been some time since I’ve read Murder on the Orient Express, but from what I remember, Buoc is such a nothing character in the novel. He primarily exists to sit in on Poirot’s investigations and continuously suspect “the Italian.” Here, though, Bouc is mostly just a charming little scamp. I didn’t expect to give a damn about this guy; instead, he probably ended up being my favorite character in the whole movie.
4. And while I had my doubts, Kenneth Branagh makes for a surprisingly good Hercule Poirot.
My Poirot will always be David Suchet. The guy played Poirot for literally, like, 30 years, and I love basically all of his performances, if not every single adaptation. Case in point: the BBC/PBS’s Murder on the Orient Express, in which they gave Poirot an angry, religious bent that he doesn’t really have in the novels and doesn’t work for me as a whole. (I understand why they do it, but I’d prefer to wait until the Spoiler Section to discuss it, as Branagh addresses the same “problem” with the source material in a different manner–with, I might add, equally unsatisfying results.) Meanwhile, the few snippets I’ve seen of Albert Finney as Poirot pretty much horrified me, so I’ve never actually watched the 1974 version of this film. (Although I should probably give it a go at some point, if only for Lauren Bacall.)
I definitely have problems with this adaptation, but on an acting level, I thought Kenneth Branagh made for a pretty worthy successor to Suchet, despite the fact he looks absolutely nothing like Poirot and his interpretation of the signature mustache was, ah, unique. (Happily, The Mustache didn’t bother me too much while watching the film. Like Harry and Ron’s hair in The Goblet of Fire and UNLIKE Peeta’s hair and eyebrows in The Hunger Games, I eventually managed to look past it.) The quirks feel right, the mannerisms. I enjoyed his general performance . . .
5. . . . except when he’s chasing after a suspect like a goddamn action star.
So, here’s the thing about Murder on the Orient Express, and indeed most Agatha Christie novels: they’re not exactly fast paced thrill rides. This story is an English murder mystery from the 1930’s. It’s basically just a long string of clues and conversations, so sure, I understand a director wanting to spice things up a bit. Generally, however, I don’t care for how Branagh chooses to do so here. Certain scenes are simply amped up: for instance, early in the novel, the train is forced to literally stop in its tracks because of the snow. In the book, this happens so casually that Poirot doesn’t even realize it; someone literally has to point out that the train has stopped. (In Poirot’s defense, I think he was asleep when it happened.) In the film, it’s . . . considerably more dramatic. Overdramatic, in my opinion, but only in a silly way. Nothing damning.
Other scenes, however, are considerably more frustrating. Branagh includes a small handful of action scenes that have no origin in the novel; in fact, these scenes want very little to do with Agatha Christie at all. The one that annoyed me the most? Poirot–fussy, meticulous, “my eggs must perfectly line up with one another” Poirot–chases a suspect down through a snowstorm, like, WTF, no. Not only is that wildly out of character with the detective we’ve been presented thus far, it also doesn’t fit the tone of this movie.
Like, okay. Everyone remember Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes from 2009? So, lots of people were deeply not thrilled when that movie trailer came out. I mean, I didn’t care because I’ve never been a big Sherlock Holmes fan; I’ve always been more interested in the revisions and remakes, rather than the source material itself. (Not unlike how I feel about Lovecraft. Fucking Lovecraft, man. I just want tentacle monsters and the occasional cult; keep your gross racism and your hideously overwrought prose to yourself.) But plenty of people did care, and I get that: Guy’s Ritchie’s version of Sherlock Holmes–you know, where he was, like, a martial arts/boxing master living in a world where something had to blow up every fifteen minutes–did not match up with the Sherlock Holmes they had fallen in love with. As a book lover, I can sympathize.
But whether you liked or hated that movie (and for the record, I enjoyed it), I think you have to admit that it, at the very least, was tonally consistent; it was both exactly what it wanted and what it presented itself to be. Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, on the other hand, doesn’t quite seem like it knows what it wants to be. The majority of the movie seems to be going for a pretty straight adaptation with a few modern updates (specific historical references, a bit more diversity, an interracial romance, etc.), but then you get these little action scenes out of nowhere that just don’t belong.
6. They also do very little to help the film’s pacing problems.
On the upside, I’m happy to report that Murder on the Orient Express is under two hours! Seriously, that’s such a relief lately. And the movie starts pretty well, I think. Unfortunately, at some point–and I suspect it’s around that time Poirot goes chasing after this one character in the snow–everything starts feeling pretty rushed. Worse, the movie strands much of the excellent cast with very little to do, and while I appreciate that it’s very difficult to give equal screen time to a huge cast like this, there are Story Reasons why these characters require more time than they’re given.
Since I can’t go into any significant detail about that yet, here’s what I’ll say instead: Murder on the Orient Express allows time to recite revelation after revelation, twist after twist, but rarely does it afford any time to attach real emotional significance to those revelations and twists.
This is the rare film, I suspect, where more flashbacks would’ve actually done the film some good.
7. Finally, a few more, mostly irate notes before we get into Spoilers:
A. Branagh’s directed a handful of films I’ve enjoyed (Thor, Dead Again, Much Ado About Nothing), but sometimes I seriously question his directorial choices, like, who the fuck wants to watch an entire four-minute scene from overhead? Like, are we watching this from God’s POV? Cause I get it if it’s from God’s POV. Otherwise, what the hell is the point of this? It seemed to go on forever, and then he did it again. (The second time didn’t last as long as the first, but still. These scenes literally gave me a headache. I didn’t even know you could do that with a POV change.)
B. I also must question the person who wrote the threatening note. I’d have to look again, as we only get a quick second to read it, but on first blush it appears as though every word in the note is spelled correctly except for “better,” which instead is spelled “bettr.” Like, why? Why that word only? What sick bastard is doing this just to annoy me?
C. I find the Count to be a deeply strange character. He’s supposed to be over-protective of his wife, which I guess comes across, but mostly he just seems to have severe anger management problems that don’t really feel connected to the story at large. I flat out cackled when he attacked this one guy. Like, it was so sudden and so over the top. Mek and I even invented a new term for his fighting style: rage ballet.
D. Finally, for some reason unknown even to God, Hercule Poirot has a dead girlfriend in this movie. I have much, much more to say about this, but for now I’ll just sum up: it’s bullshit.
If you wanna read that rant–and, I mean, who doesn’t want to read rants on the internet, there are so few of them–continue below.
First, let’s go back to the beginning.
Hercule Poirot solves some case in Jerusalem. The case itself is unimportant; we’re mostly here to set up a handful of things.
A. Poirot likes balance and order. More than that, he believes there’s a firm line between guilt and innocence, victim and perpetrator, good and evil. Criminals must always be brought to justice and so forth. This, by the way, is what we in the professional writing and amateur movie critique business like to call FORESHADOW.
B. Poirot wants a damn vacation, and nobody is going to let him have one.
C. Two of our suspects, Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Doctor Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) are secretly a couple. Also, Mary speaks cryptically about waiting until something is all over and behind them. (That something is an elaborate murder plot, obviously, but of course we don’t know that yet.)
Meanwhile, a small point about Arbuthnot:
Doctor Arbuthnot is a strange combination of two different characters from the novel: General Arbuthnot, who is a suspect, and Doctor Constantine, who is not. I’m honestly not sure why they did this, unless they just felt there were too many players involved and wanted to consolidate. Interestingly, the BBC/PBS adaptation also turns the doctor into one of the killers, although he is still Doctor Constantine, just American instead of Greek. To make room for him, they cut out a different character, Cyrus Hardman, entirely. Meanwhile, in this version, Hardman (Willem Dafoe) has, like, three different identities. But we’ll come back to that in a while.
So, Poirot ends up getting on the train, where our soon-to-be victim, Ratchett (Johnny Depp) approaches him. Ratchett’s been getting those annoyingly misspelled threatening letters, and he’s anxious. He tries to hire Poirot to be his bodyguard, but since Ratchett is pretty obviously a scumbag and Poirot has books he wants to read/giggle at, he declines. (An aside: personally, I adored the giggling. I thought it was hilarious. But also, what the hell Charles Dickens book is he reading that’s causing these giggle fits? Is Great Expectations or Oliver Twist considerably funnier than anyone’s led me to believe? Oh, wait, a trailer re-watch has just informed me it’s the one Dickens book I actually did read: A Tale of Two Cities. Er. Is he just laughing at how obvious the conclusion is?)
Of course, Ratchett is then murdered on the train. And before we go any further, I have to say thank God, because I read an interview months ago where someone–I can’t remember who–was talking about making big changes for this adaptation, and they were being awfully cagey about the identity of the victim. And while Johnny Depp is rather noticeably absent from the line-up of suspects in the trailer I linked to before, other trailers definitely made an effort to make Ratchett seem like he might be sticking around. I was prepared to have serious, SERIOUS problems if this ended up being the case, but thankfully, it all turned out okay.
The murder itself–or rather, the scenes where Poirot sees the woman in the kimono running away and such–felt a bit hurried to me. I wish, as the investigation continued, the movie would come back and reference those scenes more. But otherwise, the mystery starts off pretty well. I enjoy some of the first interrogations: Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), for instance, isn’t really how I remember him from the book–where MacQueen comes across as very stable, polite, not an alcoholic, etc.–but his scenes here are emotional and intriguing. Likewise, I’m relatively sure that Masterman (Derek Jacobi) isn’t dying from anything in the novel, but this is one change I actually kind of like. Branagh goes out of his way to show that these characters are damaged, that their lives have been effectively ruined since one heinous act years ago broke them . . .
. . . but he only does that for a few of the characters. Everyone else is basically left stranded. And that’s a problem because this is the rare mystery where everybody did it. We find out that Ratchett’s real name is Cassetti, and years ago he kidnapped a baby girl named Daisy Armstrong, ruining several lives in the process: Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), for instance, is actually Linda Arden, a famous actress who lost both her granddaughter, Daisy, and her daughter, Sonia. (Sonia died in premature labor shortly after finding out the tragic news.) Or Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), the nurse who fell asleep when Daisy was taken and has been racked with guilt ever since. Everyone on board (excluding Bouc and Poirot) were connected to the Armstrong family, and they came together to kill Ratchett, each person stabbing him exactly one time. (Except, I think, the Countess? Traditionally, the Countess doesn’t do any stabbing, but I can’t remember if the movie makes that clear, or if they just change that.)
My problem with this adaptation is that, as an audience member, I felt very disconnected from all of this. Like, okay, we find out that Hildegarde (Olivia Coleman) was the family’s cook, right?
Okay, and? Hildegard has come halfway across the world to help murder someone in an elaborate revenge plot. You have to love people for that. I’m not saying Hildegard needs an entire soliloquy about how much the Armstrong family meant to her, but come on, people. You’ve gotta give me something: a couple of well-written lines, a flashback to a nice moment between her and Sonia Armstrong, something. (And a good flashback, too, not some silent glimpse of a bunch people you don’t know that lasts all of three seconds.) Mary, too, like I get she was the governess and all, but I want to feel the connection she had with Daisy. Don’t just read me a grocery list of secret identities; that’s boring.
Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), honestly, might get the worst treatment here. Initially, he’s a seemingly cheerful salesman, who I rather enjoyed in the few minutes we had with him, like he and Bouc are definitely the bright spots of the movie. When it comes time for Big Reveals, though, we’re told his connection in a ridiculously offhand manner. Poirot is pretty much all, “Oh, yeah, Marquez was indebted to General Armstrong because the guy gave him money for his business. Next!” Garcia-Rulfo barely has time for a reaction face, much less to show how grief-stricken he was at Armstrong’s death. The cast does their very best, but so many of them are given so little to work with.
Cause here’s the thing: sure, the characters all care deeply about the Armstrongs, but the audience? We don’t know this family. They’re pretty much just names to us, and because revelations are spilled out so rapidly and with such little fanfare, it’s easy to mix up or even forget some of those names. Like, I could totally see someone thinking, Okay, so Pierre Michel helped kill Ratchett because Suzanne was his sister, but . . . who was Suzanne again? And even if you did keep the names straight, again, did you care about Suzanne? Did you even care about Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari)? Cause my guess is that you didn’t. There just isn’t enough time.
One reason we’re so short on time, I think, is because Branagh inserts a few new scenes that we absolutely don’t need. I’m mostly okay with the one where Mrs. Hubbard gets stabbed in the back, presumably to distract Poirot before he could crack MacQueen. (Mek and I had literally the exact same reaction in theater: “Bitch is hardcore.”) I don’t know if we need it, exactly, but I’m okay with it. However, the scene where Arbuthnot gives a false confession and shoots Poirot in the arm? Nope. The scene where Poirot chases MacQueen through the snow? Nope, and seriously, where the hell was MacQueen running to, anyway?
Even some of the non-action scenes aren’t really necessary.
Like, okay, for most of the movie, Hardman is pretending to be a racist, German professor named Gerhard, but then Poirot reveals he’s not German. We quickly learn that Hardman is an American P.I. who’s supposedly undercover to protect Ratchett. But then approximately four seconds after that revelation, Poirot offhandedly reveals that Hardman also secretly used to be a cop, and that just seems like a lot of identity twists in such a short time. Like, maybe we didn’t need the whole racist German professor thing in the first place? It doesn’t seem to serve much purpose.
And seriously, fuck any and all scenes with Poirot’s Dead Girlfriend.
Now, I’ve read my share of Hercule Poirot novels, but I haven’t read all 30 of them; I certainly haven’t read the 50+ short stories that also feature the detective. To my knowledge, however, Poirot has never had a dead ladylove before. Regardless, he has one here. We know this, not because she’s plot-relevant, not because she’s necessary in any way, shape, or form, but because occasionally Poirot takes out her picture and speaks to it lovingly. Oh, Dead Katherine, how I miss you, and so on.
So, why does Dead Katherine exist in this movie? Honestly, I don’t know. Here are the only answers I could come up with:
A. You can’t have a detective without a tragic dead woman in his past. That’s just science.
B. You can’t have a protagonist without some mention of romance, either past or present. What kind of unfeeling monster doesn’t have a love story?
C. Poirot has to make a choice in this movie between his head (which tells him that all criminals must be punished, people can’t take the law into their own hands, etc.) and his heart (which tells him these people are broken enough and that Ratchett deserved to die). Dead Katherine exists to symbolize that heart. She exists to prove he has one. After all, if Poirot had never loved her, would he make the call he ultimately makes? Or would he abide by his little gray cells alone and turn these people in for the crime they committed?
Whatever the reason, I want to be clear: it’s bullshit. This movie in no way benefits from Dead Katherine. She is exceedingly unnecessary; we know because she promptly drops out of the story at some point, never to be mentioned again. Also, according to IMDb Trivia, Dead Katherine is actually a Young Emma Thompson, who of course used to be married to director Kenneth Branagh. I’ve been trying to verify that with a more reputable source, as I just can’t remember D.K.’s face well enough, but if it is true . . . I don’t know, that feels . . . creepy? (Presumably, though, Emma Thompson would’ve had to give approval, right? Please?)
But back to that big choice: Poirot must decide whether to turn everyone over to the authorities, or lie and say some random murderer hopped on the train, did a little stabbing, and hopped off. I understand why modern adaptations always give Poirot this whole crisis of conscience (the BBC/PBS version did so too, hence that whole religious bent), but it’s funny because in the novel? He has absolutely nothing of the sort.
Instead, Poirot presents two theories. When Bouc objects to the random murderer theory, Poirot offers up a second solution, but warns they may like his first better. Then he lays out the crime as it really happened, and after Mrs. Hubbard confesses and asks that she bear responsibility alone, Poirot turns to Bouc and Dr. Constantine and asks what solution they believe now. Constantine and Bouc both agree that the first theory was correct after all, and the book ends like so:
“Then,” said Poirot, “having placed my solution before you, I have the honor to retire from the case . . .”
So, yeah. I really do get why no one thinks modern audiences would accept the World’s Greatest Detective just letting a bunch of murderers go free with nary a thought to consequences or morality, but personally, I think they’re wrong. Vengeance is hot, man. There’s a certain cathartic quality to a good righteous revenge story, and I think people would be all over that ending, as long as you set it up properly. (For example, it would probably help to establish early on that Poirot doesn’t think all criminals are created equal.) That all being said, I don’t object to his crisis of conscience here, or even to the idea of Poirot testing our murderers’ character, as happens in this adaptation. I just don’t love the execution.
Shortly after being shot by Arbuthnot, Poirot has a dramatic showdown with our killers in a handy nearby tunnel. He reveals some patently obvious facts (like that Arbuthnot, the trained marksman, had never actually been trying to kill him) and gets to all those hurried Big Reveals. He then sets a gun down on the table and says they’ll have to kill him if they want to escape justice. Mrs. Hubbard does pick up the gun, much to the horror of everyone else, but only pleads that the blame fall squarely on her shoulders. She immediately tries to kill herself, but of course, this is all a big test and the gun was never loaded.
The reasons I’m not wild about this scene:
A) The test itself feels a bit obvious, like, I knew that gun wasn’t loaded the second Poirot set it down.
B) Mrs. Hubbard attempting to commit suicide feels weirdly melodramatic, like, I should buy it but I really don’t. I don’t think it’s an acting thing, either. I think it’s a Big Moment that’s not really treated like a Big Moment, like, it’s given no room to breathe. (The BBC/PBS version–which has Colonel Arbuthnot draw his own gun and plan to kill Bouc and Poirot, only for Mary and the gang to talk him down–does a much better job with such a moment, even if I do dislike Poirot’s righteous indignation.)
C) Even though our killers passed the test, Poirot apparently still isn’t convinced because he has to mull things over with Pilar for some reason before he makes up his mind. I don’t mind their scene, exactly (at the very least, it gives Penelope Cruz a little more to do), but I do object to its placement after the Dramatic Morality Test. Like, that’s obviously the big turning point. You don’t create such a big turning point and then follow it up with a little more pondering. That’s just poor storytelling.
Finally, Poirot decides to let everyone go. He also decides to give us a voiceover for, I think, the first time in the movie. In this VO, Poirot address the dead Colonel Armstrong, for–as we found out earlier–Armstrong wrote him years ago, asking for his help catch Ratchett. Unfortunately, the colonel committed suicide before our little Belgian detective got the letter. Poirot tells the dead guy that he was finally able to get him justice after all, and gets off the train, where an officer is waiting to direct him to
an homage a potential sequel the Nile.
Now, I’m reasonably certain that, in the novel, Armstrong did absolutely no such thing. However, this is one of the additions I actually quite like–or would, anyway, if it had been handled differently. Mek and I were discussing it, and we thought it would’ve been neat if–instead of having a picture of a Dead Girlfriend to whisper sweet nothings to–Poirot had a box of mementos representing regrets or unsolved cases. Armstrong’s letter would be one such memento, and when he looked at it in the beginning, we’d get a glimpse of a few words to set up the mystery. Words like Casetti, maybe. Daisy. Desperate.
If Armstrong’s letter was used as a framing device instead of a throwaway line of exposition, I think the audience would connect much more to the Armstrong family. (Especially if we added a few more flashbacks, as previously suggested, and reworked some of the Big Reveals.) It would also shift Poirot’s crisis of conscience a little, making it a battle between wanting to do right by the man he felt he’d let down and wanting to do right by his own principles of balance and justice.
But, alas. Such is not to be.
Mrs. Hubbard: “Eyes linger any longer, I’ll have to charge for rent.”
Ratchett: “I’ll pay.”
Mrs. Hubbard: “Have another drink.”
Ratchett: “Are you insulted?”
Mrs. Hubbard: “Disappointed. Some men have a good look. All they have to do is keep their mouth shut and they can take home any prize they want. Still, the mouth opens.”
Mrs. Hubbard: “A man was rummaging around my cabin in the middle of the night.”
Hercule Poirot: “You are certain it was a man.”
Mrs. Hubbard: “I know what it feels like to have a man in my bedroom.”
Ratchett (to Poirot): “You’re fun.”
Daisy: “I’m sleeping here where everyone can see me, and I can see everyone.”
Daisy: “Hercules Poirot?”
Hercule Poirot: “Hercule Poirot. I do not slay the lions.”
It’s not a bad film. The performances are all quite good, and some of the scenery is lovely. A few of the additions are even clever, if not all of them. But the execution of the twists and turns and emotional reveals are all over the place, leaving for a pretty unbalanced mystery. Absolutely watchable, but it has the much potential to be so much better.
I’ll give it to Kenneth Branagh for acting, if not directing. But I’m not gonna lie: I was heavily tempted to give it to Tom Bateman instead.
Sometimes, revenge isn’t really so bad.