Adaptions are tricky. Any work that is remade will inevitably draw comparison from versions that came before, whether positive or negative. Differences in direction, photography, acting, theming and execution are felt immediately by anyone familiar with the previous incarnation. Like I said, adaptions are tricky, and crafting one draws ire and suspicion from fans wondering why anyone wants to mess with their beloved fiction.
Murder on the Orient Express is not an insulting adaption whatsoever, but the differences between it and prior versions put to film place this adaption in the middle of the pack.
Murder on the Orient Express
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Release Date: November 17, 2017
Murder on the Orient Express is an adaption of the classic Agatha Christie play, which has in turn been adapted several times to television and film, with results varying wildly in terms of quality. It follows the story of Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famed Belgian detective, as he unravels a murder mystery aboard a snowbound train, high in the icy mountains of Yugoslavia. Every passenger on board is a suspect, and Poirot has a limited amount of time to deduce which passenger is the murderer before the train reaches its destination, and the police get involved.
Let’s get this out of the way: there’s a reason that this story has been adapted so many times. Everything, from the location, to the circumstances of the murder, to the reveal at the end, are excellently crafted, and form a fantastic mystery that challenges Poirot’s sense of justice and his worldview. This is no different in this newest adaption, and if you’ve never seen this story unfold before you, you’re sure to have a wonderful time.
But the question at the heart of any adaption is this: How is this version a better work than previous ones? Is this Kenneth Branagh adaption better than Agatha Christie’s Poirot, an effective portrayal that still stands as the definitive adaption? Well, to that we must examine all the little details that hold a movie together.
Murder on the Orient Express is a beautiful movie. There’s a wealth of beautiful cinematography combined with excellent costuming and set design that lends a realness to the story. Despite some noticeable CGI here and there, Orient Express always feels like a real journey – one populated with gorgeous train cars and full of mystery. The acting won’t win any Oscars, but that’s not to say it’s weak – quite the contrary. Branagh plays an eccentric, open-minded version of Poirot that stands in stark contrast to the Poirot brought to life by David Suchet in Agatha Christie’s Poirot. While that Poirot is an excellent detective that places the law above all else, this Poirot seems more concerned with the game of it all, and is interested by the various personalities onboard the train while remaining somewhat aloof. It’s different, and it might not please everyone (especially people who really, really love Suchet in the role) but I think it’s a wonderful take on the character that retains the elements that make Poirot a great character in the first place.
What’s less commendable is the way this case unfolds. In any mystery, it’s important to clearly show the audience the clues, the details, and accounts of the different passengers. Despite the almost two-hour runtime, the details feel somewhat glossed over. All the same details are presented to the audience, but often characters will move on from them so quickly that the audience has no time to digest the information. In other situations, clues are presented in brief flashbacks before the film shifts gears towards interrogation that goes neither here nor there. Clarity is crucial in any mystery, and the smudges in Orient Express muddy the waters that should be crystal clear.
There are also some changes to the themes of the core story that hinder more than they help this adaption. While I do like this version, the changes to the genesis of the story in Istanbul are questionable at best, and damnable at worst. In the effective adaption from Agatha Christie’s Poirot, our detective begins the story by affirming his opinion that law is the highest form of moral justice, while simultaneously admitting that law is a flawed beast, and has its fair share of blind spots. This theme reverberates throughout the adaption, and comes to a head at the end of the story. Yet in Branagh’s Orient Express, the beginning of the story merely establishes Poirot as a great detective…which the audience should already be aware of. The point is only directly referenced once later when Poirot hits a bump in the case, and we never hear from it again. What was the thinking behind that change? Essentially, all this change does is patronize the viewer and hint at his eccentric behavior. Is that worth getting it, when in it’s place there could have been a strong characterization of Poirot’s worldview, and his principled values?
Murder on the Orient Express is fine. It’s a par for the course adaption that justifies its existence with beautiful presentation, a good cast and excellent cinematography. Yet the elements that are the weakest in this adaption are the ones that should be the most important and well executed in any murder-mystery – the unfolding of the mystery itself, and the moral message behind it. Here, Branagh has made Christie’s story beautiful and entertaining, but sacrificed some of the complexity and clarity in pursuing that goal. It’s a comfortable film, an inoffensive adaptation that is fun and eccentric, but one that pulls its punches. Even though Murder on the Orient Express is showing in theaters right now, it would feel more at home on your parent’s TV, playing in the background as relatives discuss politics over coffee.