The first mystery I remember watching when I was in my early teens was an Agatha Christie adaptation – 1965’s Ten Little Indians, with Hugh O’Brian and Shirley Eaton. The plot, always one of Christie’s strengths, fascinated me. Later I saw the much better 1945 adaptation with Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Houston, and I read the original novel. (Thankfully no movie ever used its original English title.) Then in 1974 another classic Christie tale, Murder on the Orient Express, was released. Directed by Sidney Lumet and with a cast that truly fit the claim of “all-star,” it spawned a series of Christie adaptations, though none of them matched the beauty of the first. After the memorable original, I was a little hesitant about seeing the new version of Murder on the Orient Express.
True, it had Kenneth Branagh both as star and director. He’s done excellent work recently behind the camera with Thor and Cinderella (we’ll forget about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, since almost everyone else has), and early in his career he was responsible for a personal favorite of mine in the mystery genre, Dead Again. The rest of the cast is filled with excellent actors both new (Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad) and well-established (Derek Jacobi, Judy Dench, Willem Dafoe). Given that cast, I knew I would see the film, regardless of the trepidation I felt about it.
Thankfully the worry quickly dissipated as the movie began. Where the 1974 version started with an introduction to the motivating crime, here we have a wonderful introduction to Branagh’s Poirot. It’s not easy to take on that character after David Suchet’s sterling version on PBS, and wisely Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green go in a different direction, emphasizing the obsessive-compulsive aspect of the character. Green has had a stellar year, having written both Logan and Blade Runner 2049, along with producing and doing most of the adaptation of “American Gods” on Starz.
The one aspect of the 1974 movie that I didn’t like was its sedate, cerebral pace. While that works fine in a novel, movies are a visual medium. Directors call out “Action!” not “Time to talk!” The pacing of the new version is strong from the opening sequence. Branagh’s more of a visual stylist than Lumet was, capturing scenes from striking angles that increase the tension. True, he does change the terrain where the story’s set from flat fields to mountain passes, but it works to increase the feeling of being cut off by the elements.
There isn’t a weak performance, though there are standouts. Daisy Ridley gives a thoughtful turn as governess Mary Debenham, the first trainmate that Poirot meets. Dafoe has a fairly showy role as Austrian professor Hardman. But it was particularly good to see a much more controlled and effective Johnny Depp. And after lesser roles for most of this century, Michelle Pfeiffer glows with fire as American socialite Mrs. Hubbard. Pfeiffer also sings the song over the end credits, in a voice as clear and evocative as when she did The Fabulous Baker Boys 28 years ago. (Branagh wrote the lyrics.)
If you’ve never seen the 1974 version, do see this one, if for no other reason than to be introduced to Agatha Christie in her prime. If you have seen the earlier one, it’s still worth watching Branagh’s version to witness how two very different directors can each take a story and put their own stamp on the project, each good in their own way.