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There isn’t really much of a need, much less a clamor, for a remake of Murder on the Orient Express. Agatha Christie’s much-celebrated murder mystery was made into a successful film by Sidney Lumet in 1974, which earned six Oscar nominations and won Ingrid Bergman her third. It had an all-star cast with the likes of Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, and Albert Finney as the lead: the peculiar Hercule Poirot. In the past two decades there have been three adaptations for television, both in the US and UK. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find a millennial familiar with the story, or Poirot, or even Christie, and perhaps the producers saw an opportunity in that demographic.

This latest incarnation comes via Kenneth Branagh, directing and taking the role of Poirot. His Poirot is thankfully much less of a cartoon than Albert Finney’s rendition, though not without his own quirky touches. He is able to give him more of a backstory, bestowing a pathos that was absent in the ’74 version. A notable line about how he cannot abide imbalance (reinforced by an obsession with breakfast eggs) paves the way for the conclusion when the mystery is revealed.

Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express

Branagh, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, and production designer Jim Clay create a lush world and a sumptuous ambiance that unfortunately does not always benefit from occasionally sluggish pacing. While shorter than the ’74 version it somehow feels longer. This may be to do with the first section, which has to introduce Poirot’s bona fides as a particularly adept sleuth.

What is fun to watch is a coterie of accomplished actors trying to, in turns, outact and underplay one another. Naturally, these suspects have various personal things they want to keep hidden from the rest of the passengers, and part of the fun is supposed to be in attempting to parse which bits are true and which are fiction.

Michelle Pfeiffer, who had a lot of fun earlier in the year in Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, here continues a streak of quite obviously enjoying herself. Her Mrs. Hubbard gets to flirt, scold, and go into histrionics during the length of the film. Daisy Ridley plays her governess character fairly close to Vanessa Redgrave’s version. Indeed, Derek Jacobi, filling the shoes of another distinguished British actor, John Gielgud, also hews close to his predecessor. Willem Dafoe is another actor who gets to enjoy himself. His character is given more to do in this update, and Dafoe takes that opportunity and runs with it. Olivia Colman gets to use her German in a nice little scene with Branagh, Judi Dench does her standard good job, and Josh Gad hams it up, a markedly different turn than Anthony Perkins in the same role. Johnny Depp doesn’t bring anything particularly new to his performance, though his character seems to have gone down a couple of rungs on the class ladder. Still, we should probably be thankful he makes a swift exit.

Judi Dench and Olivia Colman in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’
Johnny Depp in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

Orient Express also stands as a unique mystery due to its twist, which won’t be spoiled here but suffice to say it necessarily complicates plot proceedings and might even frustrate mystery fans who love to solve puzzles before the investigating character does. Of course, it was groundbreaking at the time of publication (1934). Certain changes “update” the text for 2017: more people of color, and more than one race change.

Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express does make one good, important change: he invests in the emotion of the proceedings, and the terrible crime committed, as well as its origins. It’s not entirely successful, but the attempt is there. It devotes more time to how tragedy can bind together people who previously had nothing to do with one another, and whether they weather that tragedy or let it break them. In this, it seeks to be deeper, more heartfelt, more serious than Lumet’s version.

Photos from IMDb

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