REVIEW: Murder on the Orient Express

As an Agatha Christie fan, I have to discuss this film in two parts: as a standalone work and as an adaptation of the book.

As a standalone film, Murder on the Orient Express was really good. The cinematography was beautiful, crystal clear with lush colors, elegant and enhancing the 1930s feel of the movie. I always appreciate it when a movie is well-lit: while darkness may add to the effect, I do prefer to be able to see what is happening onscreen. The use of light here was impeccable.

The acting was also very good, which is no surprise considering the film boasted quite a lineup of famed names: Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Leslie Odom Jr. were just a few names among the star-studded cast.

the plot of this film is dependent on each person in the cast making their character a strong one; although it is a mystery starring Poirot, he is not the main character. With Agatha Christie’s style of writing, he never is. What I’ve always liked about her books is that her plots are really not about the murder at all. She gets the murder out of the way at the beginning of the novel, and then spends the rest of her time studying the people who are involved in the murder, slowly unraveling each one of their characters so that really the end result is a deeper understanding of people. So with this film I didn’t really like the way it made Poirot a focal character. On one hand, he was the outsider to this situation, and to have a consistent thread in a plot it helps to have a narrator or protagonist, and so perhaps it couldn’t be helped. But I felt that the characterization of the other people in this movie was somewhat lacking.

I also didn’t care for Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot. It’s a hard character, as Poirot is comic sometimes, and deadly serious at others. My first question was, why couldn’t someone who is actually Belgian (or at least French, although Poirot himself would probably hate that) play the role? I don’t know of any adaptations where Poirot has been played by a native French speaker – even David Suchet, who is probably the most famous Hercule Poirot, is English. That aside, I am not sure Branagh quite decided whether Poirot was to be amusing or dramatic, leading to a result that was an odd mix of both. In dramatic scenes, I personally much prefer if the actors almost whisper their lines instead of shouting them, as I find that far more intimidating. In the books, Poirot, while he can get worked up and raise his voice, is not really the kind of person I would expect to yell about something really serious. I wish Branagh had done that – it would have made the scene seem less like Poirot was flying off the handle, and more like Poirot was just barely keeping his anger on a leash. I will say, though, that his mustache was excellent. If you’re not familiar with Christie’s character, this may not seem like very important a point, but one of Poirot’s identifying attributes is his huge mustache, which David Suchet never really had. Also, Branagh did manage to bring out Poirot’s fastidious nature, which is another essential aspect of his character.

All in all, the movie was a really good one, if you didn’t compare it to the book. For that reason, I was wary of seeing it, but the fact that Judi Dench was in it convinced me otherwise (she, incidentally, does a magnificent job of adding a softer side to her character, the Princess Dragomiroff, than I thought existed in Christie’s portrayal). And there were no really major details changed, as far as I remember, though it has been a while since I last read the book. But if you did compare it to the novel, I think the nuances of Christie’s characters are perhaps explored more fully in the book, though the actors – I’m thinking of Michelle Pfeiffer and Judi Dench here – did a fine job of bringing out those nuances in the limited time they were given to do so.

I think the most perfect part was the opening song in the end credits. Sung by Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays a pivotal role in the cast,  was a beautiful fit, both by style and by lyrics – as such, it was almost haunting. Full of love, loss, and sorrow, it ended the movie on a fittingly melancholy note.

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