After the Graham Norton Show with Sir Kenneth Branagh and Johnny Depp rolling around on the sofa, I was seriously concerned that they would be playing it for laughs in this movie. Dame Judi Dench seemed game for a little mischief too. I was convinced that a new actor would murder Poirot on the Orient Express. The prospect of a Poirot who wasn’t David Suchet seemed grim.
An icy reception for the new Belgian detective?
I was relieved, then. So much so that I had to tear up the first draft of my review, written rather foolishly before I saw the movie, in which I predicted a farcical remake of a dearly loved classic. This is an entertaining and well thought out new version with plenty to celebrate.
The film opens in Jerusalem. The journey starts in Istanbul. The scenery is spectacular. I haven’t used this word for at least ten reviews. It truly is spectacular. Glorious scenery. Wonderful, up close views of the city from the train. Steamy interaction between the train and the city. A venerable period drama. Art-deco. Art gecko.
All aboard for a spectacular journey into a dark place
Society expects a lot from Poirot. His first challenge is to determine whether a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew is responsible for stealing a priceless ruby. The answer is none of them. He arrests the true culprit, a local policeman, with his cane. If only criminal policemen could be brought to book so easily in everyday life.
The cast is impressive. Dame Judi Dench stars as Princess Dragomiroff, Johnny Depp as Edward Ratchett. I would like to have seen more of him on screen but that would have ruined the story. Penelope Cruz (Pilar Estravados). Daisy Ridley (Mary Debenham).
Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham (taking a break from shopping)
Then there's Michelle Pfeiffer. I haven’t seen her for a while. Here, she momentarily reprises her Fabulous Baker Boys peformance. A sultry, seductive blonde in a Jessica Rabbit red dress. If there were a grand piano on board she would surely drape herself across it. But by the end we see her as a rather tired figure, and not a true blonde.
Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) prowling the corridor
Just time for a quick mention of Paapa Essiedu, most famous for his recent role as Hamlet, playing a young policeman. His Twitter profile says 'Don’t tell me not to preach', lol. There are several other sizeable names in the cast, but you can find your own favourites.
In this story, Poirot ends up dissatisfied. Tormented. He walks away. But for once, he has listened to his heart and not relied on his little grey cells to bring matters to a conclusion. Even if you know the story, you will be in for a treat. A cold treat. And, as the saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold. With all that snow around, and all the remaining passengers asked to sit behind a long trestle table in the open air, twelve across, the denouement was very frosty indeed.
Just four of the many suspects and one determined detective
Branagh makes a good Poirot. Not perfect. Poirot himself requires perfection, but there is plenty of Poirotesque behaviour on display for me. Branagh is both engaging and annoying. He is completely authoritative, with several delusions of grandeur. He doesn’t waddle, that’s a shame. He is strong and fit. Resilient enough to survive a derring-do chase across a railway bridge and come crashing down without even a moan before getting back on his feet. Branagh’s version is almost down to earth at times.
The biggest difference of all is the new moustache. It’s a whopper. A double grey moustache. A multi-layered moustache, turning up at several points across the expanse of his face. Branagh also has a tiny patch of beard on his chin. Barely a goatee. I have my views on this feature, but I don’t want to sway you in this review. You can see them in the Connected Cultures feature on all the Poirots - Bro’s with Mo’s
Seriously, how does he keep such a straight face?
Let’s get back to matters of principle. Poirot wants two big things in this story. Perhaps in every story. First, justice; this is his moral compass. We have always known he is strict on justice. It’s his raison d’etre.
“I can only see the world as it should be”.
Quite so. Moreover…
“There is right and there is wrong, there is nothing in between”.
The second major element of his outlook on life is the need for balance. And in his world, justice and balance are inextricably linked. Surprisingly, this doesn’t last. The behaviour on the train unbalances the situation and forces Poirot to change his view:
“There is right and there is wrong, and then there is you, somewhere in between”.
Early on, there is a fun scene with two unmatched pairs of hard-boiled eggs. For once, Poirot tolerates them, even if he doesn’t eat them. Branagh's Poirot doesn’t dwell all that long on the social niceties and the peccadilloes. He even tells Mr. Ratchett, played by Johnny Depp, that he doesn’t like his face. Maybe this is a more relaxed Poirot.
Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) strangely seeking protection
Murder on the Orient Express is a classic tale. Not a personal favourite, but fine enough. After grinding to a halt in the snow, the train leaves us all confined. But that’s when the psychological intensity takes over. It’s a chilling story. Engaging. Captivating. And it has quite an ending. A twist to die for. This new movie is another splendid recreation of Agatha Christie's marvellous story. I would go so far as to say it’s bristling.
The end of the journey for now
Mark Kermode, venerable film critic, sometimes praises a film for being ‘not as bad as it could have been’. Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express deserves better than this description. This is a highly satisfying and enjoyable movie. Another helping of Poirot – a character who I thought would never come along again. Branagh’s Poirot is worthy. Believable. He is not my Poirot. Not perfect. Not punctilious. Not meddlesome. But, he is a Poirot. I would gladly watch Sir Kenneth in the role again, solving more cases, even if they have already been solved more definitively.
We have been given a hint of a jaunt on the Nile to come. We shall see.
© Eddie Hewitt 2017
See more on Poirot’s moustache and all the Murder on the Orient Express movies in the Connected Cultures feature: Bro’s with Mo’s?
Fox Movies - Murder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie www.agathachristie.com