Kenneth Branagh has directed an all-star cast in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit, whilst donning an ostentatious bristly moustache that looks more like a kitchen broom to take on the lead role of meticulous detective Hercule Poirot. Attempting to take a few day’s holiday to relax and read his Dicken’s book, he boards the luxurious Orient Express, only to find himself embroiled in a murder case when one of his fellow passengers is brutally stabbed aboard the train. Everyone is a suspect, and Poirot must deduce who the killer is amongst them before he/she strikes again.
Those who have read the novel or watched the previous film or TV versions will most likely already know how this one is solved, so the responsibility falls upon the film to make the tale of as deliciously entertaining as possible for the duration of the 2-hour historical romp. As someone who hadn’t previously read or seen it, I remained part of the unspoilt section of the audience, expecting to be kept guessing until Poirot tied up the investigation in a surprising yet satisfying package. While the film certainly wasn’t completely unengaging, I found that the treatment of the central mystery left much to be desired.
There is no doubt that this film is visually stunning. Shot on 65mm film, a treat for celluloid film purists and rarely used in commercial cinema today, it takes advantage of the large scope and vivid colour this format allows as the train makes its infamous journey from Istanbul to Paris. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography shines through as the audience is treated to sublime wide angled shots of sun-soaked Istanbul and jagged, snow-capped mountains.
The steady-cam work which evokes the juddering of the train was a nice touch but a little overindulgent and distracting and I found myself feeling very grateful when it stopped as the train came to an abrupt halt, if only because it had begun to make me feel queasy. This, coupled with a lot of extreme close-ups of Brannagh and his supporting cast, gave the film a very claustrophobic sense, effectively portraying the feeling of being trapped in a confined train compartment. The off-kilter camera shots and high-angle views of the murder scene were a nice nod to classic crime noir.
Branagh establishes Poirot’s unparalleled eye for detail as the film opens with him measuring his boiled eggs in the hope that they are perfectly prepared, however even I was left wishing he would pay as much attention to the clues in the murder, as the unveiling had very little complexity. He plays the part competently and a few comic beats in the film provide a much-needed lift from his somewhat serious performance. Johnny Depp almost upstages him in the role of the crooked Mr.Ratchett, perhaps the most compelling of the cast, but his screen time is limited.
As Poirot interviews the eccentric array of first-class passengers, including Daisy Ridley as an uptight governess and a disgruntled princess played by Judi Dench, it appears significant effort has gone into making sure that they are all given equal screen time; perhaps to share the suspicion among them equally. This method may be very democratic, but it doesn’t leave much room for standout performances as most of the cast feel underused with an overall lacklustre effect. When the big reveal finally comes around, it is not too surprising. While the moment is used to offer an effective study into the pain and torment of grief; the collective sigh of relief that should come in a tense, subtle murder mystery was missing. It felt rather like a logical wrap up to a story I was never truly invested in.
The attention to detail of the props and costume is commendable, I found myself staring at an elegant art deco tie pin worn by Ratchett and the flamboyant v-shaped suit lapels which paid faithful homage to the fashions of the time. The resplendent luxury of the first class carriage is conveyed magnificently, with every fan-shaped light fitting and glowing crystal glass conveying the height of 1930s sophistication.
Overall this retelling of the classic Christie tale isn’t entirely without merit and it sets itself up for a future foray into more of Poirot’s adventures with a hint at him heading to Egypt for Death on The Nile, but it feels as if more attention has been paid to evoking the period glamour rather to writing a script worthy of such an accomplished cast.
– by Sarah Roberts
*Images courtesy of IMDb.