Murder on the Orient Express was published in 1934, but it’s a testament to the lasting power of Agatha Christie’s storytelling that her genre-changing murder mystery remains as fresh and compelling today as it did 80 years ago.
Given its popularity, 20th Century Fox’s decision to revive the iconic detective is a sound one. It’s also a brave one – given how firmly TV’s David Suchet has established himself in the role. The result is a mixed-bag. Lush visuals bring a nostalgic sheen to ‘30s Europe. An A-list cast rise to the challenge and give their all, with many delivering their best performance in years. William Dafoe and Penélope Cruz – always excellent – are particularly noteworthy. And even Johnny Depp has shrugged off his usual character-tick-crutches to give a believable performance as the throughly unpleasant Samuel Ratchett/John Cassetti.
However it’s Branagh’s Poirot that carries the film and – ultimately – the film’s success will depend on how well audiences respond to his reinvented detective.
While Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes used Conan Doyle’s source material as the basis for his rebooted character, Branagh has little to work with. Christie’s great detective is famously mutable – his background is sparse, and even his appearance changes from novel to novel. Fortunately Branagh’s Poirot stays well within the margins. He’s a little younger and more physical than his paperback counterpart. His fastidiousness and obsession with detail has been evolved into a form of high-functioning autism. But, he’s basically the same Belgian whose little grey cells so famously unpicked 33 Christie mysteries. Which is all to the good.
Some have argued that Branagh, as both star and director, gives himself too much screen time, to the detriment of the excellent ensemble cast. Yet this is, after all, Poirot’s show. And, if the ending is to be believed, there are plans for more of the same, which makes it sensible for Branagh to take the time to develop Poirot as a sympathetic and believable lead.
Murder On The Orient Express feels like an Old School Hollywood production: star-studded, easy-on-the-eye, and eminently watchable.