Adapting “Murder on the Orient Express” to film in our contemporary period is a bit of a challenge. The original Agatha Christie classic created an unnerving claustrophobic setting accompanied by a great focus on detailed conversations and investigation that mystery stories of that time period were famous for.
However, the elements that made the novel and others like it so great are a bit out of favor with mainstream film-making at the moment, preferring expressive characters over a detailed plot and speedy scenes over long stretches of dialogue. This is why recent adaptations of works from this literary era, such as Guy Richie’s “Sherlock Holmes,” became action romps. Other adaptations like BBC’s “Sherlock” and “House M.D.” focused on the central detective’s tendencies toward neurotic behavior, sometimes at the expense of the mystery at hand. Thus, the challenge for director Kenneth Branagh was to adapt this literary classic to more contemporary sensibilities without losing touch with the integral mystery of the famous novel.
In confronting this challenge, Branagh created an adaptation with some intriguing new insights on the original material, but is held back in a few areas from becoming a classic in its own right. The film takes Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), a character previously only characterized by his engagement in the plot, and makes him the focal point of the piece. Hercule steals almost every scene he is in through a combination of hammy performances and alluring facial hair.
Every scene ends up highlighting and reinforcing Hercule’s meticulous nature and very ordered, dichotomous world view. From the prologue in Jerusalem to his monologues in front of a picture of a lost lover, the film successfully explores the psychology of Hercule Poirot. His desire for an ordered, detailed perfection that makes him an adept detective also isolates him from others and is left wanting due to the events that transpired on the orient express.
Even the cinematography focuses on this psychological element, as the narrow halls and cabins of the trains are meticulously detailed and ordered. Branagh contrasts this with the spacious snowy mountainside the train finds itself stuck in, its chaos infiltrating the order of the train much like how the film’s proceedings violate Hercule’s psychology.
It is a shame that this psychological element sometimes compromises the mystery. With such a focus on Hercule’s character, the other passengers are given very little screen time to establish themselves as captivating in their own right. Even such an all-star cast with giants such as Judi Dench and Johnny Depp, as well as rising stars like Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr., are unable to become proper foils for Branagh’s Hercule to bounce off of and develop the mystery, in spite of their best efforts.
What makes it worse is the film’s portrayal of these conversations and how they’re edited as it is often very speedy and makes it difficult for an audience to keep up with the details of the mystery. Epitomizing this is a montage of dialogues between Hercule and some of the other passengers that strikes one as lazy and unfocused. Thus when the time comes for the big reveal of one of the most famous solutions in literary canon, the impact pales in comparison to the original novel.
Ironically, the film could have benefited from the balance that Hercule yearns for. As it is though, “Murder on the Orient Express” is worth a one-way ticket, if not a round-trip.