Agatha Christie, the queen of crime, had been adapted for television and cinema so many times that it is difficult for yet another interpretation to achieve something new. The latest version of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the third I’ve seen. There’s nothing revolutionary about it – if you know anything about Agatha Christie, you already know what you’re going to get. But if you’re inclined to see a classic murder mystery enacted with elegance and flair, step right up. Although the novel was published more than seventy years ago, and was first adapted for the big screen in 1974, many of today’s viewers may nevertheless be unfamiliar with its plot. In any case, even if you are, there may be a detail or two that was done in a slightly different fashion this time. Therefore, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers.
The cast is undoubtedly the greatest strength of this adaptation. In Agatha Christie’s usual manner, the number of murder suspects is limited from the outset. There are thirteen of them, all of whom are passengers or employees who happened to share the first class coach with Poirot and the victim. It is no small feat to bring to life so many characters in such a short time, let alone make them so charming or so uncanny that they stay with you long after the end credits have rolled. If you are considering whether or not to see this film, the acting alone provides ample reason. There’s Daisy Ridley as the clever and cautious governess, Tom Bateman as the flippant but well-intentioned director of the train company, Derek Jacobi as the quintessential British butler. Also, Judi Dench is both regal and mischievous in her portrayal of the eccentric Russian princess. However, my favourite is probably Penélope Cruz who plays a devout missionary – soft-spoken and demure up until she matter-of-factly proclaims the world to be sinful and doomed. On top of that, Michelle Pfeiffer gives a complex and memorable performance – though you’ll have to wait almost until the end in order to appreciate it fully. It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that practically no one in this film is quite what they claim to be. They spend the better part of the story immersed in their fictional identities. Then, when Poirot uncovers their real identities, they abandon all pretense and show their true colours, changing everything from facial expressions to posture and even speech patterns. These transformations were a delight to watch. The story takes its time to introduce the characters and their complex interpersonal connections. First we see the superficial layer of their cover stories – everyone has something to hide, otherwise it wouldn’t be interesting – and then we slowly begin to understand the tangled web of their true motives while guessing and second-guessing along with Poirot. Ultimately, when the final twist is revealed, it comes as a logical conclusion to the plot we’ve been following all along. And what of the great detective, played by Kenneth Branagh himself? As a long-time fan of Christie’s murder mysteries, I already have firm opinions on the correct way to portray her most famous hero on screen. My Poirot will always be David Suchet – the portly, black-moustached egghead from that TV series you must have seen. Consequently, I was a difficult viewer to impress. When it comes to this particular interpretation of Poirot, there are several points I take issue with. His trademark obsession with order and symmetry is sometimes exaggerated, while other times conveniently downplayed. Reminiscence of a long-lost love from his youth strikes me as gratuitous sentimentality. However, he also shows warmth and compassion, and cares about justice as much as he does about outwitting the culprit. These traits complement the cold rationality of the “little grey cells”. The result is a fairly rounded character mostly true to the source material. To sum up, the detective doesn’t steal the spotlight; considering the rest of the cast, that’s all to the good. If I have any real quibble with this adaptation, it’s the CGI. Christie’s stories would not be the same without their exotic locations, from Egypt to Iraq, which she described from first-hand experience. The Murder on the Orient Express is no exception. The opening scene is set in Jerusalem, where Poirot solves a minor case before deciding to go on a train journey by way of a vacation. Next, he sails across the Mediterranean and travels to Istanbul, where he boards the famous luxury train. Later on, the train journey takes him through the snow-covered mountainous regions of the Balkans. There is only one problem with these places: they’re all fake, and it shows. Early scenes of the Mediterranean Sea appear more suited to a tourism advertisement than a feature film. When Poirot arrives to Istanbul, we are treated to an aerial view that resembles nothing so much as a cut scene from a video game. When the train reaches the Balkans, locals in the audience cannot fail to notice that the mountains are taller, the buildings more ornate, and everything a good deal prettier than it should be. Personally, I would have preferred to see that brilliant cast stay inside the lavish train interior from start to finish. Murder on the Orient Express is one of the many recent films that exploit our fondness for nostalgia. The crime stories of Agatha Christie, with their unchanging genteel setting and their invincible and unflappable hero, present a prime example of this longing for a golden past. Also, like many other recent works, Murder on the Orient Express doesn't quite live up to its potential. The setting is too artificial; the protagonist is trying too hard. Nevertheless, the outstanding display of acting skill on the part of the supporting cast manages to make up for all of its flaws. Therefore, I would still recommend seeing this film. At its heart, it is a tale of mystery and suspense, and this aspect of it remains uniquely fresh and compelling.