Fixing What’s Not Broken in Murder on the Orient Express 2017

By: Elka Wiesenberg  |  December 14, 2017

In 1974, director Sidney Lumet dazzled audiences across the world with the first film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s brilliant murder-mystery, Murder on the Orient Express. Lumet’s film was nominated for several categories in the 1975 Academy Awards, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Carl Schenkel, in 2001, brought another, less popular movie to Hollywood to interpret the novel. After these two big screen adaptations and several smaller projects of Murder on the Orient Express had already been produced, there were several questions on the minds of many when a 2017 version of the story was announced: How did the director, Kenneth Branagh, expect to live up to his predecessors, particularly to the beloved 1974 film? What new vision could he bring to this well-worn but iconic tale? What would make this movie worth seeing, when so many already know exactly how the plot unfolds? Basically, how could this movie be a success?

The first step in Branagh’s revitalization was to procure an A-list cast. Johnny Depp stars as the villainous Samuel Ratchett, a despised, fraudulent trader. His assistant, Hector MacQueen, is played by Josh Gad, who steps out from his recent Disney role as Lefou to play yet another antagonist’s sidekick. Riding with them on The Orient Express are the German professor Gerhard Hardman (William Dafoe), the prudent and stately Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), the elderly Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), and the gracefully aged widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer). And, of course, there are the secret lovers: veteran Dr. Arbuthnot and governess Mary Debenham, played by Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. and Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, respectively.

Branagh himself steps into the shoes of Christie’s famous recurring protagonist, Detective Hercules Poirot. (Branagh seems to subscribe to the philosophy, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”) The star of many Christie novels, Poirot is a Belgian mystery-solver who wants to retire from a life of pursuit to live peaceably, starting with a relaxing train ride on The Orient Express, run by his longtime friend and companion, M. Bouc (Derek Jacobi).

The storyline progresses very faithfully to Christie’s novel. Fearing for his life due to a series of anonymous threats sent to him in the form of cryptic notes, Ratchett tries and fails to convince Poirot, sharing his train compartment, to find the source of these letters and protect him. Poirot refuses to help the criminal, but the detective ends up being coerced by Bouc into coming out of his brief retirement, becoming an investigator again when Ratchett is murdered in his bed on the train.

The cast members play off each other seamlessly, working to form the unit they become in the movie; the passengers must band together when they are all trapped in their train compartment after Ratchett’s murder. This lock-in is due to a derailing accident that gives Poirot a small window of time to solve the murder before The Orient Express pulls into the station. Though only some of the actors in the film have worked together in the past (i.e. Depp and Cruz in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), the entire cast is so cohesive that they could have been together since the start of their professional lives.

Branagh ensures that the plot moves smoothly, entrancing the audience from start to finish. From the exciting chase at The Western Wall that opens the movie to the neatly wrapped-up finish, every minute transitions flawlessly to the next. The well-known story is perfectly cushioned by a balance of drama and humor, so that the almost two hours of screentime do not feel like a string of events hastily sewn together to pad the runtime, like so many movies in theaters this year. While it is not a revolutionary retelling of the story, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express is beautiful and well-executed, keeping the audience wide-awake with the timeless story of excitement and suspense that has kept Christie’s novel alive for so many decades since its publishing in 1934. Many magazine and media reviews have criticized the lack of an extraordinary “new twist” on this classic tale, but isn’t staying as true to the original story as possible what so many readers ask for?

So no matter how many times you’ve read Agatha Christie’s extraordinary tale, or seen it on any platform, hurry to the theaters to catch this highly rated adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express before you lose the opportunity to enjoy this work of art on the big screen.