Murder on the Orient Express




All aboard for the retelling of a classic Agatha Christie piece from the 1930s.

Murder On the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot


Most literary critics - an intellectual breed - are loathe to accept the fact that within the genre of detective fiction Agatha Christie was a genius. If the simplicity of her writing style encouraged their disdain, it was nevertheless a factor that made the masses devour her books, while her unique cleverness lay in her ability to devise more remarkable plots than any of her rivals. Furthermore, the actual writing was wonderfully astute in the way that she deployed both clues and red herrings and thus created a challenge for the reader. This turned her books into a winning experience for all who accepted that challenge: either you failed to guess whodunit and had the satisfaction of a great surprise when the answer was finally revealed or else you won out by anticipating the solution and thus gained even more satisfaction.


These factors explain the longevity of her appeal and also why for the most part adaptations of her work for cinema and television have generally given less pleasure than the books themselves. The best film elaboration of one of her works is Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957) taken from her stage play, while the most satisfactory treatment of one of her novels is René Clair's And Then There Were None (1945). A runner-up in the latter category is Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express (1974) which, as scripted by former film critic Paul Dehn, was true to its source material. That film's box-office success led to a series of all-star big screen adaptations but, by 1982 with the camp adaptation Evil under the Sun, they had become a travesty of the originals. Much more recently, dramatisations for television have tried to provide an update by adding gore and/or more explicit sexual elements not exactly welcome to traditionalists but seemingly popular with some viewers.


Against this background to be given a new cinema film of a Christie novel if hardly the most obvious move is not altogether surprising. Rather more unexpected is the fact that Michael Green as writer and Kenneth Branagh as director have chosen the same piece as Dehn and Lumet did and that, despite a few elaborations (a shooting, an extra stabbing), they have largely opted to be faithful to the plot and tone of the original. Thus it is that, following a novel preface, Branagh's film soon finds Hercule Poirot, played by Branagh himself, on the Orient Express and on the very night that one of the other passengers (Johnny Depp) is murdered. Due to the train being halted by a derailment, it becomes a case of detective and suspects being cut off from the outside world and in this confined setting (black and white flashbacks to another earlier crime committed in America provide a quite brief variation) Poirot sets out to discover the identity of the murderer.


The period setting lends itself to good production values and, if Patrick Doyle's acceptable music score lacks the marked appeal of what Richard Rodney Bennett gave us in 1974, the look of the piece is fine curtesy of Haris Zambarloukos. As it happens, Murder on the Orient Express is one of several Christie tales that develops almost entirely through Poirot questioning the suspects rather than through action scenes of any kind and in theory that makes it a less than obvious choice for cinema adaptation. In 1974 EMI turned that into a virtue by giving us an all-star cast with each star in turn being interviewed in a way that provided them with a big scene. Although not quite equalling the star-power of the earlier cast, this version too opts for big names (see the credits below). However the fact that it is at least 15 minutes shorter than Lumet's film means that some players get less of the limelight (Judi Dench is a case in point).  One other minor weakness comes from the decision to extend the ending although, mercifully, Mrs Christie's ingenious solution remains intact and ultimately Green does retain the stance taken by Poirot, one which intriguingly for a novel published back in 1934 foreshadows the ending of the last Poirot novel, Curtain, a work which appeared posthumously in 1975 despite having been written some time earlier. Nevertheless, the film would have gained from being more succinct in its final scenes.


This is a film that has been written off by a number of critics, but I feel that that is merely confirmation that many of them lack the taste for Christie stories told in a way that stays close to her original style. On balance, Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express is the superior version, but Branagh's Poirot is much better than his critics might lead you to suppose (even the notoriously large moustache that he brandishes is less distracting than one had been led to expect). In short, this is not a great film nor, to be honest, a necessary one, but it is still a pleasing entertainment for anyone who enjoys this kind for thing and, if it happens that you don't know whodunit, then you are in for a surprise that finds Christie at her cleverest.




Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Gerard Horan, Adam Garcia, Richard Clifford.


Dir Kenneth Branagh, Pro Kenneth Branagh, Mark Gordon, Judy Hofflund and Ridley Scott, Screenplay Michael Green, from the novel by Agatha Christie, Ph Haris Zambarloukos, Pro Des Jim Clay, Ed Mick Audsley, Music Patrick Doyle, Costumes Alexandra Byrne.


Twentieth Century Fox/Genie films/Kinberg Genre/The Mark Gordon Company/Scott Free Productions-20th Century Fox.
114 mins. UK/Malta/USA/France/Canada/New Zealand. 2017. Rel: 3 November 2017. Cert. 12A.