With his new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, the director/star Kenneth Branagh does nothing to besmirch the tried-and-true formula of Agatha Christie’s whodunit novels. But he does have an of-the-moment take on Christie’s beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Branagh suggests Poirot as an emblem of order in a disorderly world, treating him as something of a superhero: Poirot doesn’t have super-strength or big punches to get to that realization, just his trademark miraculous insight. And, like superheroes in the first film of a franchise, he’s been given an emotional arc in which he discovers something about himself. On his sleuthing journey, Poirot must realize that truth is not quite as black and white as he would wish.
In the opening scene, Poirot is at the base of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. As he’s explaining to an angry crowd his thought process for finding a stolen religious artifact, he nonsensically wedges his cane into a crack in the wall so that it’s sticking straight out. Five minutes later, after we’ve forgotten about the cane business, Poirot reveals to the crowd the identity of the real thief of the object; said thief, in his rush to escape, clotheslines himself right into that meticulously placed cane. I know no human on Earth could deduce so perfectly a suspect’s future reactions, and yet I was giddy when Poirot did so, because I don’t need Poirot to be real — I need him to be an aspiration, like an infallible Robert Mueller. And that’s exactly what Branagh delivers.
Branagh’s mustache here is broom-like and walrussy, and his accent lay somewhere between David Suchet’s and Peter Ustinov’s but not quite Albert Finney’s; no actor who takes on Poirot attempts a genuine Belgian accent — it’s part of the fun! (Please, read any Christie book and count how many exclamation points you find on a single page.) As director, Branagh fully embraces the almost-farcical Christie habit of placing archetypal characters in fits of hysterics. “Vice is where the devil finds his darlings,” growls Penelope Cruz when her prudish teetotaler (and suspect) Pilar Estravados gets offered a nip of champagne. More than once, Branagh’s Poirot wheezes with delighted laughter as he thumbs through a Christie novel, signaling the director is resisting the trend of the gritty reboot, and thank God he does so. The last thing I want from an escapist Christie adaptation is gore and strife.
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Still, Branagh certainly updates Orient Express. Pricey CGI places Poirot and the suspects atop a snowy mountain, and an altered storyline allows for Dr. Arbuthnot to be played by a black actor, Leslie Odom Jr. I wish we would have spent more time with Odom and the others in this amusingly overqualified cast of veterans and about-to-break players, including Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Marwan Kenzari, and Josh Gad. But with an ensemble that large and a mystery to be solved, no one gets to be the star but Poirot. Still, no matter how few lines they have, each actor quickly marks the story — no easy feat in such a complex narrative.
Despite the bright cinematography, there’s something quaint and comforting about this film and its brand of old-fashioned storytelling, where coincidences are extremely likely, everyone somehow knows a countess, and a man puts honor above all else. Shot almost entirely inside train cars, it tests Branagh’s ability to orient an audience in space while moving characters in complex blocking patterns. Alfred Hitchcock’s confined-space films (like Lifeboat) have influenced him. Cramped cabins necessitate close-ups in Dutch angles, with the camera placed in corners above and below the characters. One sequence recalls the scene in Psycho, where “Mother” rushes from her upstairs room and murders a man who then falls down the stairs, with the whole thing shot from an overhead bird’s-eye view. Tight spaces demand creative directorial choices.
In the late 1980s, when British actor David Suchet was preparing to step into the role of Poirot — which he then played for 19 years — an actress told him “she understood why women adored Poirot: She said it was because women felt safe with him.” The undeterred, mustachioed investigator is forever obstinately focused on the minute details like, for instance, whether his two daily hard-boiled eggs are precisely the same size. But aside from his distinctive facial hair, prickliness and not-quite-placeable accent, one of his defining characteristics is his innate respect for women. His existence is driven by the pursuit of ultimate truth, and a man so concerned with true justice and fairness must necessarily see women as equals — it’d be hypocritical not to, and God knows Poirot cannot tolerate a hypocrite.
In publishing speak, Christie’s 69 novels, including her popular Poirot series, fall into a category called “cozies.” Every writer of the genre could provide an individual definition, but a cozy, to me, is a mystery story any person — regardless of gender — can curl up inside of and simply enjoy without having to confront our cruelty as a species or question our own human value: Women are never second-class citizens in a cozy. This is why so many of us love them and Poirot. So it is greatly disappointing that Johnny Depp — whose friends and managers have now confirmed that he beat his ex, Amber Heard, on multiple occasions and then lied about it — is in this film, though thankfully not past his character’s early death to kick off the story. But if Branagh is to continue with more Poirot — which I hope he does — I would also hope he’d take a bit of extra care in his casting to honor the comfort women find in time with this peculiar hero.