With the possible exception of Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s most famous detective character was the French genius Hercule Poirot. Poirot has been played by a host of actors on radio, television, and the big screen – perhaps none more memorable than Albert Finney’s turn in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express.” Now Kenneth Branagh has seen fit to remake this classic with himself playing the clever sleuth.
Lest you’ve forgotten the plot, “Murder on the Orient Express” takes place on a train traveling through Europe in the dead of winter. A blizzard derails the engine, and the hapless passengers are stranded until workers are able to right the lead car. That same night, a shady American businessman named Ratchett (Johnny Depp, in the old Richard Widmark role) is found stabbed to death in his room. As no passing among the cars is allowed at night, the suspect must therefore be one of the other travelers from Ratchett’s and Poirot’s car.
Thus begins the absolute joy of watching Christie’s brilliant bloodhound question the other commuters for any information which might lead to the revealing of the killer. Turns out Ratchett was actually a mafia bigwig named Casetti, who was responsible for kidnapping the daughter of a retired British Army Colonel living on Long Island some years earlier. As you might guess, each of the other passengers has some motive for seeing Ratchett/Casetti dead.
As you watch, remember anything and everything can be a clue. The thrill of reading or watching a Christie novel is in the process of discovery. The actual killer hardly matters, at least in comparison to the gathering and disseminating of the evidence. As in the 1974 adaptation, the assembled cast is top-notch – particularly Josh Gad as Ratchett’s personal assistant, and Willem Dafoe as a bigoted German.
But for my money, the most interesting character (again) is the missionary. Played by Ingrid Bergman in the previous big-screen rendition, this time the character is Spanish rather than Swedish, thanks to the talents of Penelope Cruz. Cruz won’t win an Oscar the way Bergman did, but screenwriter Michael Green has written the character with more of a religious fanatic slant, adding to the mystery of the character’s motives. Michelle Pfeiffer also shines in the Lauren Bacall role as the rich, oft-married American woman.
Again this time around, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a lot of fun. I always enjoy matching my wits with those of the crafty Poirot. It’s a bit of a lost cause, but Christie’s characters are so vividly drawn audiences almost can’t help but play along.
My complaint however is the necessity of the whole exercise. As with Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” I question why Branagh felt the desire to remake “Murder on the Orient Express” in the first place. Lumet’s version was the apex of Christie adaptations. And while Branagh is obviously capable of playing Poirot to the hilt, and of directing this modern implementation of a familiar story, why did he deem it crucial in the first place? If Branagh had some innate desire to play Poirot, why didn’t he choose one of the other 32 Christie novels in which the French detective works his magic? Show us something most of us likely have not read, rather than retread something that worked almost perfectly in a previous version.
If you can get past the necessity factor, Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is a good vehicle for his talent, and an expectedly fun ride. But unlike Lumet’s gold-standard interpretation, don’t expect to see this one come Oscar time.