As I have mentioned in my previous POST, I have been anticipating Branagh’s big budget version of one of Agatha Christie’s most overrated novels since the trailer dropped earlier this year. I have now had the privilege of watching the film, and so have decided to share my thoughts with you.
Visually, the film is stunning, with an all-star, A-list cast including Branagh himself, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Olivia Colman and Judi Dench, all of whom offer exceptional performances. The costumes are sumptuous and the setting lavish, with the visual effects designed to thrill; the scene where the viewer witnesses the moment of an avalanche advancing upon the train is a feat of real cinematic beauty.
It has everything you could possibly want from a Hollywood Blockbuster, with witty dialogue, funny one-liners and a lavish soundtrack that would make a true connoisseur proud. I am sure any real historian (I make no bones about the fact that I am not one) would be able to tear the film apart for its historical inaccuracies, but there’s nothing overly glaring and overall the effect is enticing, engaging and a real pleasure to watch.
The problem is that, whilst this is a really great film, it is not an adaptation of a Christie novel. It may have the plot of the Queen of Crime’s most acclaimed book, but the film has something crucial missing. The protagonist.
There are many ways in which Branagh tries to link the film back to Christie’s novels, utilsing many of her key tricks, such as humour, racial tension and stereotyping. It also has the air of an older film, with many cinematic techniques derived from great old-school cinema. The scene in which the body is discovered, which is shot entirely from above the characters heads, lends the adaptation the feel of a play.
What this adaptation of a famed Hercule Poirot novel does not have, is Hercule Poirot. Branagh may have named his character that, but he does not embody the finickity, bizarre Belgium detective in any way. In some ways he does play lip service to the character’s traits, such as his fastidious nature (the opening scene shows him measuring eggs and blaming the chicken for not laying them the exact same size), but this is not a real part of Branagh’s depiction, and is only mentioned in passing. In his investigations, Branagh’s Poirot jumps from subject to subject in a haphazard and disorganized manner that does not befit the neat and orderly Hercule Poirot.
He is also far too attractive for Poirot, who, in Christie’s novels, is depicted as a strange little man with an egg shaped head and a massive moustache which dominates his face. Branagh’s moustache, impressive though it is, does more to accentuate his features than it does to overpower them, and he is far too tall and slim to be the round little man Christie created. One of the other characters repeatedly refers to him as ‘funny looking’, when the truth is that he is incredibly handsome, and far too much of the archetypal Hollywood man to be Poirot. His accent fluctuates constantly between camp faux-French and French-Canadian, to the point where I wondered if this was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek joke. If it was, it fell decidedly flat.
The character’s Hollywoodisation extends to being far too active. Christie’s Poirot was a man who enjoyed comfort and preferred to sit and think, whereas Branagh’s detective is incredibly strapping, and is shown taking down a man with his walking stick in the opening scene, using said stick to smash open a door to uncover the body, and then strutting about atop the snowbound Orient Express rather than sitting in a comfortable chair inside, as would be the sensible option. Chasing a suspect down icy scaffolding to apprehend him is no issue for Branagh, making his Poirot far more of an action hero than Christie’s beloved protagonist.
The acting itself is masterfully done, and Branagh is constantly in a state of extreme nervous tension that makes his performance unsettling to watch, and helps ramp up the tension in an already intense experience. Depp is brilliantly creepy as both the villain and victim of the piece, although Dench is the least convincing Russian I have ever seen. Many of the actors, such as Derek Jacobi in his depiction of a dying manservant, are nuanced and complex, offering the viewer a fascinating insight into the inner turmoil of these characters as the plot races towards its confusing but, characteristically for Christie, human nature centered conclusion.
Overall, this is a stunningly crafted adaptation which does a good job of making Christie’s frankly ludicrous plot seem almost sensible, although it does tamper with the ending a little in a way which displeases me immensely (I cannot tell you how, for fear of ruining the film, so you will just have to see for yourselves). There is a hint at the end of Murder on the Orient Express that Branagh may adapt another of the more well known Poirot novels, and I would be more than happy to watch that also. However, if you are a die-hard Poirot fan, I would suggest you stay at home and re-watch the ITV series, or better still re-read the books. This is, by no stretch of the imagination, an accurate portrayal of the Queen of Crime’s most celebrated detective, but it is a great film that has spent its massive budget well, and is definitely well worth a watch.