Review: Murder on the Orient Express Revives a Classic For A New Age

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An undoubted 20th century literary classic, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) remains a captivating tale of deception, mystery and brilliant detective work. While the element of surprise may have vanished for many in the eight decades since its publication and the four decades after the highly acclaimed 1974 film adaptation, director and star Kenneth Branagh’s treatment of this well known whodunit is still a very enjoyable time at the movies.

Was it a necessary remake and did it bring something new to the story? Perhaps not, to both questions, but this new version works well enough as a respectful nod to the novel and the original film. And though many viewers will be familiar with the 1974 movie and the book, it is worthy to consider that there are indeed emerging audiences who are not; for them Branagh’s adaptation should prove to be an enticing and well crafted invitation to discover the brilliance of Agatha Christie and the many great adaptations of her work.

Set in 1934, world famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, sporting a ridiculous moustache) looks for some rest and relaxation from his busy schedule of solving crimes. He seems to find it on the luxurious Orient Express train but is soon thrust right back into work when he must solve the murder of a passenger. Everyone is a suspect and soon all the lies and false appearances will be confronted to reveal who is indeed a killer.

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From a narrative perspective, this version is really much the same as past realizations though Branagh does still manage to create an air of uncertainty. Audiences who don’t know of the story beforehand will find themselves amused and guessing, as Christie would have wanted.

Featuring a well rounded cast of acting heavyweights and emerging performers it is also a pleasure to see so many diverse figures on screen. Names like Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh himself bring the stage veterans into play, while others like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Willem Dafoe represent the screen pros. And then there’s Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley, still new to the scene but already forging auspicious paths for themselves.

The look of the film is also very appealing with commendable set and costume design, and some creative camera angles. Much like the Orient Express itself there’s a feeling of visual opulence in the film; from the opening scenes in Jerusalem, to the streets of Istanbul and of course the interior of the luxury train, everything looks very important indeed.

Period clothing and hair styles are well done with a definite classic feel. That is perhaps what has drawn audiences (both old and new ) to this story: its classic feel. Before forensic science and laboratory testing there was good old fashioned sleuth work. To see the brilliant workings of Poirot’s mind and deductive powers (much like his literary counterpart Sherlock Holmes) never gets tiring.

And so in the end how enjoyable is this latest film version? I believe it will truly depend on which audiences are asked. There’s the loyal Agatha Christie fans and those who admire the 1974 film, but there is also a new crowd of viewers who will not be making comparisons and will see Branagh’s film as a first. To those aware of the novel and the previous incarnations of Poirot, this film will likely be nothing overtly special. It’s a rehash indeed and not a masterpiece by any stretch.

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But to the uninitiated this 2017 film would seem to be a good introductory vehicle to this story and Agatha Christie herself. It’s certainly lavishly made and perhaps a little far fetched, but it retains the element of surprise and guesswork that made this story famous in the first place.

For me as critic who has seen the 1974 film, Branagh’s version was not a revelation of cinematic excellence. But still I admired greatly the effort and love that was put into this project; though not much new for me in this movie I certainly see the good effect it can have on first time viewers. In fact I noticed numerous viewers in the theatre who seemed to be unaware of the famed history of this story and who were evidently thoroughly satisfied with this first exposure.

It is only fair to acknowledge then that no matter how famous a novel or film may be, there will always be audiences that don’t have a knowledge of the material. Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is then an admirable and well executed adaptation that may leave those in the know shrugging their shoulders but those in the dark with an entertaining outing at the movies.

And to those previously unaware the film should hopefully put spotlight once again on the genius of Agatha Christie and on one of the world’s greatest literary gumshoes. Try then perhaps to view the film as an outsider (if you have seen the original film) and I’m sure there will be some fun to be had on that very luxurious rail trip. All aboard!

Michael Vecchio
Michael Vecchio
Michael Vecchio is a contributing writer for Before The Cyborgs. A graduate of the University of Alberta, he is a keen follower of events in the world of film, as well as politics and history. You can also hear him podcast about film and politics



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