This American film is based on the novel of the same name written by Agatha Christie in 1934. It is the fourth adaptation of Christie’s mystery story to a screen, and a remake of the stylish film of the same novel that was directed by Sidney Lumet in 1974. The story is loosely inspired by real-life events: the young son of American aviator, Charles Lindbergh, was abducted in 1932 and held to ransom. The ransom money was paid, but the baby was found murdered close to home.
Extravagantly moustached, Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), boards the Orient Express in Istanbul for a holiday between cases. The first class compartment section of the train is filled with people who range across the social-class spectrum. One of them, Edward Ratchett, asks Poirot to protect him and to be his personal bodyguard. Ratchett has been receiving threatening letters, and he tells Poirot that he believes someone is trying to kill him. Poirot doesn’t like him, wants a rest, and declines the request.
Early next morning Poirot is awakened by a disturbance from Ratchett’s compartment which is next to his own. Later, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin, with multiple knife wounds. After sifting through the evidence, Poirot deduces that his murderer has not left the train but is still on board, and may strike again. The evidence indicates that 12 of those on board are connected to Ratchett’s past. Long ago, Ratchett was associated with terrible events that led to the deaths of many people, and all but one of the first class passengers are linked to him in some way.
The list of possible suspects increases as the train continues on its way. When the train is derailed by an avalanche of snow, Poirot gathers his audience of 12 suspects together, and moves into detective mode. He obsessively sifts through relevant and irrelevant clues to gradually reveal what happened, and who was involved. After he believes he has solved the case, he lines up the suspects in a railroad tunnel, with the derailed train behind him, and tells them his conclusions.
This classic tale of mystery and intrigue is one of Christie’s most famous novels, and Branagh plays a little loosely with Christie’s original story. He takes the lead role in the film, as well as directing, and co-producing it (with 11 others). The movie has an impressive, star-studded cast, just as Lumet’s film did. Judi Dench plays Princess Dragomiroff, a wealthy and elegant aristocratic Russian matriarch; Penélope Cruz takes the role of a Spanish missionary, Pilar Estravados (for which Ingrid Bergman won an academy award in Lumet’s 1974 movie); Michelle Pfeiffer plays the much-husbanded American widow, Caroline Hubbard; and Johnny Depp plays the American businessman, Edward Ratchett, whose murder on the train is what Poirot has to solve.
The film’s cinematography is eye-catching, and makes excellent use of wide-lens aerial photography. The characters keep their secrets to themselves, and each of them plays his or her part without trying too much to outperform the others. Solid tension is maintained by the plot, and the opulence of the set designs and costumes captures the famed elegance of the Orient Express. Branagh keeps the focus on “why” Ratchett was killed, and builds the paranoia up until trick surprises finally reveal all.
Lumet’s 1974 film showed a slow, ingenious unravelling of plot that was kept precisely on target. Branagh’s version takes a few detours to trendily entertain along the way. It has, for example, several moments of distracting violence, a wailing-wall introduction at the start to inform us of the genius of Poirot, and multiple visions of a pointed gun for what is, after all, murder by knife on the train. Something of the magic of Agatha Christie’s plot line is lost by each of them.
This film puts Christie’s famous murder mystery in escapist style on the modern cinema screen. This is an enjoyable and entertaining movie, but it entertains with a little too much theatrical flair.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting