Retelling novels on a cinema screen proves doable but difficult, with some being more successful than others. Kenneth Branagh’s reboot of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ took perhaps one too many liberties when narrating Agatha Christie’s original novel. The story begins with our famous protagonist, Hercule Poirot, (Branagh) who is immediately called to leave his holiday and take the first train back to Calais to investigate another case.
The cast had many big names playing the likes of Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), Ratchett (Johnny Depp), Princess Dragimirrof (Judi Dench), Hildegarde Schmitde (Olivia Coleman), Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridly), Mrs Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Bouc (Tom Bateman), Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Countess Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton). With such an impressive list, it seemed that the movie would not disappoint, yet none of the actors were given the chance to live or breathe. Not only was the train journey confined, Branagh failed to characterise or create drama between the actors. Instead, with minimal lines between them, random characters were merely sitting emotionless around the dining car, waiting for their turn to be picked for interrogation.
The decision to use an overhead shot of Ratchett’s murder had no effect on the revelation of the murder. The entire scene was rushed. The shot showed no indication to the audience about the clues left in the victims berth (an embroidered silk handkerchief, pipe cleaner and pocket watch). Instead we get the top of Poirot’s head and a bloody corpse. The interviewing scenes also consisted of numerous Dutch angles and uncontrollable panning in and out of the carriage window. The main portion of Christie’s novel involved the interviewing suspects but Branagh managed to squeeze it into about 3 minutes. By reducing the length of the murder scene, Branagh left plenty of time for Poirot to tackle the complicated case.
What was an old, Belgian, charming detective was now a short tempered man with a good punch and moustache that travelled the width of his face. Poirot’s new salt and pepper look suggested perhaps to ‘use your little black and grey cells’ instead of the just the ‘grey cells’. What was left of the original Poirot, the walking stick (which was now a weapon of defence) and his sweet tooth. Branagh created an entirely new portfolio for the old detective in attempts to modernise the character and step away from the ‘typical’ Poirot.
Despite Branagh weak attempts to rejuvenate the original 1974 version, the actors did a brilliant job with their individual performances when it had been discovered that they had all committed the murder. Many of the characters had different personalities to which the novel envisioned. Mrs Hubbard, once a loud mouthed American was now a seducing man-hunter. Accompanied by some hauntingly eerie music, Pfeiffer gave a heart wrenching performance in the interrogation scene where she was willing to point the gun to her direction to reward peace to her daughter. Meanwhile, Dench had managed to get into the depths of her character, sharing most of her scenes with Coleman who had the challenge of undertaking a new accent. Johnny Depp was certainly not a stranger to taking up unusual roles. His scenes may have been short but he did not underperform.
It would be unfair to say that Branagh had got it completely wrong. The period costumes, attention to detail on the wooden train carriages, dining carts with specially arranged flowers.
‘I liked the sense that I could let the audience escape into that world,’ said Branagh, ‘where the details of what the characters are touching, seeing, eating, drinking, wearing are a significant part of the pleasure. Branagh allowed his audience to experience post war life amongst aristocrats as well as involve conversations of Stalinism and Prohibition.
The film was created to merge the modest past to modern day. Branagh’s unnecessary gag on prostitutes and gun violence relates to the problems faced in todays world. The directors decision to step away from David Suchet’s television Poirot was an unsuccessful one. Perhaps Branagh can learn his lessons for his next venture, Death on the Nile.