Release: 5th March 2018
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
Kenneth Branagh directs and leads an all-star cast, including Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and Judi Dench, in this stylish, suspenseful and thrilling mystery based on the best-selling novel by Agatha Christie. Everyone’s a suspect when a murder is committed on a lavish train ride, and a brilliant detective must race against time to solve the puzzle before the killer strikes again.
Depending on whom you ask, like James Bond, everyone has their favourite incarnation of Hercule Poirot…Who are we kidding, EVERYONE considers David Suchet to be the consummate definition of Agatha Christie’s beloved mincing Walloon. The fact that so many have come and gone before and after Suchet’s mammoth 70+ outings in that curled moustache, is a testament to his staying power. It’s like thinking of someone other than Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, or trying to recast Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine; it is a futile exercise. So it is no small feat then that Kenneth Branagh has so brazenly buttoned up the pine stripe three-piece and strutted into the latest re-telling of Poirot’s grandest narrative – Murder on the Orient Express.
The first question one might ask when entering this world of the Ratchett killing once again (for what must be the fifth or sixth time), is why bother? We know the story, we know the twist; hell we even know what carriage Poirot sleeps in. So why the hell would we want to indulge in two hours of sleuthing if there is no real mystery in the first place? Clearly this is a question Branagh has asked himself, and answers with two points. The first is that the experience is, maybe for the first time, a wholly operatic and cinematic one. The camera glides and floats through an opulent claustrophobia, moving in and out of the train to embrace all that a big budget and A-list cast has to offer. The second point is more of misdirection than anything else; Branagh has gone and bloody changed the list of suspects. It is a superficial change, but does it work? Let’s head point two off at the pass; the mystery remains as a dead as the mobster it surrounds. There is nothing new to find here, except maybe the added tension of seeing a few punch-ups along the way. The first point, however, it what keeps this adaptation in the running for best in show.
Although not all of the film’s dozen or so big names make a huge impression, the trifecta of Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and, indeed, Branny-poohs is what has the most impact. Depp, currently on the Hollywood s**tlist for questionable behaviour, delights in oily smarm as Edward Ratchett. It is no big secret that Rachett is a very bad man, yet Depp chooses to play up the cowardice and vulnerability. It’s a thankless role, playing the victim in a Christie story; they often dick about for half of act one, only to wind up toes up. Yet in his brief stint on this mortal coil, Ratchett is a delight to watch. Pfeiffer meanwhile plays the most annoying peacock of a person every xenophobic zealot believes the quintessential American to be. She first crosses Poirot’s path, or rather storms in to it, with a torrent of dialogue that ranges from the ditzy to downright predatory. And from here, she only gets more robust. If Judi Dench is the epitome of elderly English (or, in the case of Orient Express, Russian-by-proxy) belligerence, then Pfeiffer has been busy re-inventing herself as an all-American cougar. But that is only one half of a character that matures into much darker areas. And finally we have Hercule Poirot, himself. To settle the immediate argument, Suchet is still king. However, Branagh does a wonderful job of hitting that sweet spot between fastidious oddball and master of the little grey cells. His Poirot is more than just an immense piece of facial hair (and the one on show here is epic), as Branagh’s incarnation is more of a physical presence. We are not talking Downey Jr’s kung-fu Sherlock Holmes, but rather simply more of a muscular manifestation; albeit one with great comic timing.
There is little to dislike about the film, but the is not a great deal to be impressed by either. Yes, it has some wonderful set pieces, and the story remains wholly – and thankfully – unmolested. What does come out of left field is a rather shocking and emotional murder scene that is possibly the most ‘in line’ with what Christie’s words intended to convey. So the film has that going for it. I guess the main issue is that, the film is not necessarily serving any purpose, except that maybe it will kick-start what 20th Century Fox no doubt hope will be a Poirot Extended Universe (PCU?). One where Hastings gets a spin off and Miss Marple (Maggie Smith, anyone?) gets a cameo or two, or maybe even faces off against Branagh in a duel of the minds. Hey, if you’re going to get wet, you might as well go swimming!
Film Grade: C+
20th Century Fox have really stepped their game up when it comes to special features, and Murder on the Orient Express is no exception. First and foremost, Kenny B gives a lovely Director’s Commentary. It is informative and easy to listen to. There is also a strong body of Making Ofs that cover everything from pre-production through to a post mortem of the film’s overall experience. One quibble might be that it is all a tad sentimental. The brief yet informative Agatha Christie Documentary is hardly the definitive experience advertised, as is the Poirot one. However, there are some nice little anecdotes, including one about a headmaster pinching early copies of Christie books. The Deleted Scenes range from pointless to thankfully absent. They have missed a trick here, however, as it would have been great to get David Suchet to have a sit down with Branagh and discuss his process in finding a different angle on the character.
Special Features Grade: B+
Definitely a glorified origin story, but one that looks immense none the less. Praise be for a great collection of supporting special features.