IT’S ALL TOO easy to dismiss Agatha Christie as a literary mediocrity whose career was built on the creation of mindless whodunnits destined only to fill any unfilled ninety-minute slots on the BBC’s television schedule. But that’s to overlook Christie’s astute treatment of women, her deep understanding of interpersonal dynamics and the sheer prowess of her storytelling, all of which are why she remains, to this day, the most widely read author ever to write. The latest reminder of Christie’s enduring appeal is the release of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded adaptation of her most celebrated mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, but what’s a shame is that Branagh fails to elevate the story from typical terrestrial Sunday night entertainment to something more fitting of the silver screen. Murder on the Orient Express is as satisfying and well-rounded as ever, but not nearly a good enough use of its cast or its veteran director.
Those who have read the novel or seen any of its (many) adaptations will likely be familiar with the plot. The film opens with a scene set in Jerusalem, where Hercule Poirot, a consummate perfectionist, measures two boiled eggs to see if they’re the same size before solving a mystery involving a priest, a rabbi and an imam. (Of course, there is the perfunctory “walk into a bar” joke). What follows––the titular murder on a train from Istanbul to Calais holding thirteen apparent strangers––is relatively faithful to the story. There are some examples of creative licence, namely a secondary stabbing, but otherwise the events that play out will not seem unknown. In the characters there is a more obvious divergence. First of all, there is an amalgamation of two characters into one, but more significantly, Poirot, a short, bald detective with a well-waxed moustache, now looks an awful lot like Kenneth Branagh––but with a moustache.
There is a slightly embarrassing string of moments in which each of the characters is introduced, solely because the actors that play those characters include Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and others. You can almost hear the sound of the audience cheering when the camera first falls on each one.
There is a slightly embarrassing string of moments in which each of the characters is introduced, solely because the actors that play those characters include Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and others. You can almost hear the sound of the audience cheering when the camera first falls on each one, and these aren’t the first times you have the impression that Sir Kenneth invited some A-list friends to come along and make a Christie, and no need to do anything too different to that which had been done countless times before. This is the film’s cardinal sin: though cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos treats us to stunning, snow-covered scenery and Christie’s original plot remains relatively intact, the characters that are so fundamental to the enjoyment of the story are woefully underdeveloped and the actors that play them woefully underused. There are plenty of unusual overhead shots and implications of Poirot’s almost Christ-like omniscience and sense of justice, but not enough else taking place for us to care.
It could have been worse, of course, but that’s hardly high praise. Murder on the Orient Express gets away with a great deal because its plot is timeless and the imagery is lavish and grand. But for its budget, its director and its cast, the final incarnation of the film should be considered a failure, even if, as I did, you expected it to be much worse.