Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express
In Murder on the Orient Express, when Edward Ratchett meets Hercule Poirot for the first time, he offers to be his bodyguard. Ratchett, an art dealer with dubious credentials, wants Poriot to protect him from some anonymous threats he has been receiving of late. It is a lucrative offer but Poirot flatly refuses. It is meant to be a holiday and the job isn’t interesting enough. More importantly, he doesn’t like the guy. In his attempt to persuade Poirot to accept his offer and show him the extent of the seriousness of the threats, Ratchett takes out a gun from the inner pocket of his coat. But is he also, in a way, threatening Poirot? In Sidney Lumet’s film from 1974, this is implied; Poirot senses something by instinct, but he keeps it to himself. In the new film, Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot snaps at Johnny Depp’s Ratchett with something like, “Are you pointing that gun toward me?” It’s telling when a murder mystery spells out too much.
This is not to say that Murder on the Orient Express demands subtlety. Adapted for TV, radio and cinema, it is the most popular story about one of the world’s most famous detectives by the best-selling novelist of all time. The Orient Express, packed with characters who have seemingly little in common, is en route from Istanbul to London. There is a last-minute addition to the list: Poirot hops aboard. And then there is a murder. Christie’s text, with its inter-continental group of personalities, is perfect for an all-star ensemble—Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, among others, in the Lumet film, and Penélope Cruz, William Dafoe, Judi Dench, Depp and Branagh in the new one. They are stuck on a snow-bound train: a chamber-piece in constant motion.
Lumet had fashioned his version like a classic film. The remake has a 21st century blockbuster glossiness. Branagh was roped in by Twentieth Century Fox to direct the film and one can see the studio’s discomfort in keeping it entirely within the confines of the train. As a result, it comes out in the open to provide some relief from the mounting stuffiness; there’s even a flashy outdoor chase scene. These are not major problems but it says something about the inability of the enterprise to take risks, even with such inherently crowd-pleasing material in hand.
One of the few things that works is some of the casting decisions, most notably that of Michelle Pfeiffer. As the talky and brittle Mrs Hubbard, she seems like a reincarnation of Lauren Bacall’s version of the character. As Poirot, Branagh is fine—like Albert Finney in the old film he is practically unrecognizable under the moustache. But I couldn’t help shake the feeling that his Poirot has been redesigned superficially for current times, and perhaps made to look more attractive. In the 1974 film, the refined European-flavoured aristocracy of its key players was undercut by the weirdness of Poirot. In the new film, someone refers to Poirot as the “strange and peculiar” man. I kept looking for that man throughout the film.
The film’s revisionist touches are all too perfunctory; there is now a black British man and a Mexican in the mix. By the end, you wonder, why fix what isn’t broken? The answer is explicitly given—like many things in the film—in the last scene, where a policeman in a quiet station tells Poirot about a possible case on the Nile.