Here’s what you need to know about Hercule Poirot: He’s from Belgium; he’s a foodie, and his soft-boiled eggs must be perfect; he’s a natty dresser, but he’s got a silly moustache and a teeny sprig of a beard; he has a special gift for solving crimes, and often works as a consultant for the police; he loves examining details, even if it’s just during a conversation with another person; he reads a lot of Dickens; he was in love with one woman, long ago; and he considers himself “probably the greatest detective in the world.”
But near the beginning of this third English-language filmed version of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” set in 1934, Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed), is tired, and in need of a holiday. A boat trip from Jerusalem — where he’s just solved a case involving a rabbi, and priest, and an imam — lands him in Istanbul, where the aroma of fresh baked goods starts to calm him down.
Well, even if you haven’t seen an earlier version of the film or read the book, you just know his euphoria isn’t going to last long. An urgent message from London, where his expertise is needed, results in him getting the last available spot on the luxury train the Orient Express, which will zig-zag its way east.
This signals the start of both the story and, just like in the 1974 version, the introduction of numerous famous faces playing oddball passengers. Among them, there’s the professor (Willem Dafoe), the princess (Judi Dench), the doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), the husband-hunter (Michelle Pfeiffer), the “art dealer” (Johnny Depp), a woman with a dark past (Penelope Cruz), many more.
The only spoiler-ish bit of story that will be revealed here is that one of them is concerned about personal safety. The wealthy, nasty, pushy, gun-toting Edward Ratchett (Depp) approaches the cool and calm Poirot, confesses that he’s new in the business of dealing art, that a couple of fake paintings might possibly have been sold through him, and that some angry customers might be after him. He tries to hire Poirot for protection.
But Poirot, who prides himself not only on the ability to always know right from wrong, refuses. “No,” he says. “I detect criminals, I do not protect them.”
The plot doesn’t just thicken, it erupts. There’s an avalanche, and the train is partially derailed and stuck on a wooden trestle high up in a snowy mountain range. While everyone is waiting to be rescued, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a murder, involving multiple stab wounds, late at night, right there on, as the title suggests, the Orient Express.
It’s up to Poirot, who thought he’d find some much-needed rest on this journey, to get cracking on whodunnit. And it’s at this point that viewers start meeting and getting to know the passengers, all of whom Poirot now considers suspects, through his eyes, as he interviews them one at a time.
With the relatively small train — an engine and four cars — stuck in the mountains, the film gives us a cramped setting, which adds to the claustrophobic mood of the piece. But Branagh, as director, regularly pulls his cameras outside, initially showing the train churning through the isolated terrain, now showing some of the characters wandering around in the snow to pass the time.
This is a classic and clever story, although there are a few moments where it seems to move a bit slowly. Poirot finds “a riot of clues, dropped conveniently,” and keeps pushing onward in his investigation. Again, if you haven’t seen an earlier version of the film or read the book, you’ll never figure out the mystery before he does. The most fun of all is watching Branagh’s robust performance which, like his Belgian accent, never wavers. Or maybe the most fun is staring at that silly moustache, which I expected to come to life and start twirling on its own at any moment.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Murder on the Orient Express”
Written by Michael Green; directed by Kenneth Branagh
With Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp