As an avid fan of Agatha Christie mysteries on book and screen - especially David Suchet's excellent portrayal of her most famous detective, Hercule Poirot - I had to admit that the preview images of Kenneth Branagh and his take on Poirot's inimitable moustache put me off. What was he thinking? It was simply too ridiculous to be taken seriously. But I am happy to report that Branagh not only pulls off the Belgian sleuth, but he approaches the character and Christie's most famous puzzle with originality and enthusiasm.
Branagh is not only the lead actor in the film, but its director. He and his screenwriter Michael Green take some liberties with Christie's original novel, but not so much as to upset any die-hard mystery lovers. Branagh's Poirot is just as clever, and at times, bombastic, as in the novels. But he also adds a certain vitality and even action to the character. This is quite a feat, to succeed in breathing new life into such a tried-and true formula as British detectve fiction. Murder on the Orient Express has been filmed before, most notably Suchet's portrayal on British television in 2010, and in 1974, in a lavish film production directed by Sidney Lumet that starred Albert Finney as the private detective. Branagh mounts just as sumptuous a production, and fills his diverse cast with veteran and up-and-coming stars: Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Penelope Cruz.
Here's the story ... L-R. First Row: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz; Second Row: Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi; Third Row: Josh Gad, Leslie Odom, Jr., Lucy Boynton, Olivia Colman; Fourth Row: Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Marwan Kenzari, Sergei Polunin, Tom Bateman
Agatha Christie reflected current headlines in some of her mysteries. History buffs may recognize references to the infamous Lindgergh kidnapping case in Murder on the Orient Express. The story is set in 1934, when the Orient Express was the most luxurious way to travel between Paris and Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Poirot finds himself booked at the last minute on the train. He is not pleased at the prospect of cutting short his vacation in Istanbul to answer an urgent call to investigate a case in London. But he is a professional, and relectantly agrees. It is the middle of winter, not a popular time for travel, but the train is surprisingly full. His friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), a director of the train, insists that he be given a berth, and Poirot begins his journey.
The train is packed with an international clientele, including the glamorous but talkative American widow (Pfeiffer) and a Russian princess (Dench) and her German maid (Olivia Colman). These people from disparate places and backgrounds don't seem to be too happy to be thrown together in such close quarters, no matter how attractive the surroundings. Poirot meets an American, Ratchett (Depp), a "businesman" who speaks more like a gangster, in the dining car. Ratchett offers to share his dessert and attempts to hire the famous Belgian sleuth as his bodyguard, claiming that his life is in danger, but Poirot refuses, "I do not like your face."
The train is derailed overnight in a snowstorm and Ratchett turns up dead - stabbed multiple times in the compartment next to Poirot's. Could an outsider enter the train under such conditions? If not, it must be one of the passengers, but which one of them? How long will they all be trapped here, in the snow, before help comes? And who would be so audacious as to commit such a heinous crime right under the nose of "probably the world's greatest detective?" Poirot must sort through myriad and conflicting clues to determine who, of the passengers, is telling the truth.
Branagh is is his element here. Front and center, certainly, but also giving each character and actor his or her moment to shine. The production values and cinematography are superb. The costumes look elegant, but not overdone. The train compartments and set are wonderful to behold - and even more fun once you get to see the behind-the-scene extras included on the disk and find out just how Branagh and his team managed to bring the Orient Express to life.
The Murder on the Orient Express Blu-ray/DVD/Digital combo has a running time of 114 minutes and comes with almost two hours worth of extras that add a lot to the package. But these features must be viewed after the film, as spoilers to its ingenious solution abound:
"Agatha Christie, An Intimate Portrait" - A nice biography of the author, with archival photos and interviews with her family.
"Let's Talk About Hercule Poirot" - That it took six months to design the detective's moustache(s) are among the fun facts revealed about Branagh's interpretation of Poirot.
Deleted Scenes - Viewers can decide if many of these scenes could have easily made it into the final cut, as they add nice background material of the various passengers/suspects.
Many behind-the-scenes featurettes are included in the package, with insights into how the production crew pulled off the realitic-looking train, and why the decision to shoot the film in 65mm adds to the ultra-luxe look of the film. They include: "Unusual Suspects, Parts 1-3" - interviews with the cast and their takes on their characters; "The Art of Murder;" "All Aboard: Filming Murder on the Orient Express;" "Music of Murder;" Theatrical Trailers (3); Gallery (behind-the scenes shots of the cast and crew); Commentary by Kenneth Branagh and Screenwriter Michael Green, which can be turned on and off.
Murder on the Orient Express looked great in theaters, and happily also looks impressive on a large-scale high-definition television screen. The film is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements. Specifications: Blu-ray: 1080p widescreen 2:39:1, Audio English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1) Subtitles in English (SDH), Spanish, and French. DVD Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 (English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, French Dolby Digital 2.0). Subtitles in English (SDH), Spanish, and French. A digital version of the movie is also included and can be streamed or downloaded via the Movies Anywhere app.
Whether one is previously familiar with the great Belgian detective or not, there is a lot to enjoy in Murder on the Orient Express. And it is no surprise that Branagh wants to continue his journeys as Poirot, as the film hints that his next adventure will take him down the Nile.