(KENNETH BRANAGH IN MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS /20th CENTURY FOX)
20th Century Fox. 2017. Mystery. 114 minutes.
RATING: 4 angels
It’s debatable whether or not Murder on the Orient Express is actually Agatha Christie’s best work – but there’s little doubt that it’s far and away her most famous work. It’s also the one that most lends itself to filmed adaptation, in part because of the easily-marketed exoticism suggested by the title, but also because the roster of characters practically begs for all-star casting. While Kenneth Branagh’s latest incarnation can’t rival Sidney Lumet’s original 1974 version for its all-star credentials, it is by far the more enjoyable and cinematic interpretation, buoying the otherwise claustrophobic whodunit with a sense of cinematic scale befitting its setting.
It’s no small irony that Christie’s fussily brilliant Belgian Sleuth, Hercule Poirot, has only ever been portrayed by English actors, all of them apparently party to a multi-generational competition as to who can master the more outlandish accent and sport the more ridiculous moustache. Branagh is in no hurry to contend in the accent department – he plays it mostly straight – but his cheekbone-to-cheekbone ‘stache, which precedes him like the mermaid-bedecked prow of a schooner, raises the bar not just for other Poirots, but for the entire tone of the film, making clear that everything in this Orient Express will be bigger, bolder, cheekier (literally and figuratively) and hairier (literally and figuratively).
The spoiler-free broad strokes of the story remain the same – in 1935, while in the Levant, famed sleuth Hercule Poirot is called to solve a case in London for which he books a cabin on the Orient Express. When inclement weather stops the train in a remote mountain region, it’s discovered that a murder has taken place among a select group of passengers – all of whom are now suspects as Poirot works to solve the murder before authorities reach the train at its next station. Published in 1934, with a backstory that references the 1932 kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son, Murder on the Orient Express obviously no longer strikes on the same cultural touchstones it did at the time. As a period mystery and literary artifact, it has become kitschier and kitschier over ensuing decades, resulting in at least two adaptations – a 2015 Japanese television miniseries and a misbegotten, contemporized 2001 television production starring Alfred Molina – taking almost ludicrous liberties to manufacture modern-day relevance. No surprise, then, that the preferred versions, until now, remain the more faithful versions – the 1974 Lumet film and the 2010 television adaptation with David Suchet, which was produced as part of Suchet’s longrunning “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” series.
The 1974 film, which won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar and was nominated in five other categories, capitalized on that decade’s hunger for all-star ensembles. Disaster films like Airport and The Towering Inferno had helped fuel a voracious appetite for stars piled upon stars. Alongside Bergman, the roster of Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Richard Widmark and, of course, Albert Finney as Poirot was as dazzling as any ever assembled and audiences and Oscar voters responded. Branagh’s new film – which boasts no slouchy ensemble itself with Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Pénelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi – has been likewise configured to the tastes of today’s audiences, equal parts visceral and cerebral, setting the tone with a marvelous Jerusalem opening that immediately raises expectations for both scale and excitement. What follows never disappoints. By turns witty, chilling, provocative, exciting and smart, Orient Express has been consciously designed as a vanguard – the first of an intended ACCU (Agatha Christie Cinematic Universe) that will hopefully yield more such outings from Branagh and 20th Century Fox.
Perhaps it’s that very hope that has Branagh in his finest form in decades – his Poirot is not only fussier and feistier than previous versions, but more vulnerable – an egotist intimately aware of his skills, yet also deeply conscious of the very limited life to which they constrain him. Not since 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing has Branagh seemed this spry and fleet-footed in a performance – yet another reason to hope that more such outings will materialize.
Credit also goes to Branagh’s collaborators – screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner: 2049, Logan) for a deft, faithful adaptation, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos for a look that screams to be seen in 70mm, and longtime friend and composer Patrick Doyle for yet another rousing, memorable score. With another Christie adaptation due to arrive in December – the Glenn Close-starrer Crooked House – Branagh and Fox have set a succulent table of early holiday season delights for filmgoers.