Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express in 1933, on an archaeological dig at Arpachiyah in Iraq. The legendary author is about as far from the stereotypical view you have of her as you could possibly imagine. She had always had a strong love of travel and has traveled the Orient Express alone and, perhaps more famously, completely disappeared for 11 days when she discovered her first husband’s affair. Agatha Christie was every bit worthy of being a character in one of her own books.
Kenneth Branagh is a self-confessed fan.
Trained in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and have found a true love of theatre in bringing Shakespeare’s words to life. He’s worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre, having formed many of his own companies including his newest venture, the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company in 2015. The first actor to film Henry V since Sir Lawrence Olivier appeared in over a dozen films and has directed a number himself. Kenneth Branagh knows good characters when he reads them.
And Branagh’s love of the classics and character truly comes to form in his new film, the latest adaption of Murder on the Orient Express. Written by Michael Green the writer behind films like Blade Runner 2019, Logan, and American Gods. Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most solid films of 2017. Branagh balances Green’s terrific writing by creating a classic tension, even in the arguably slower parts of the film, born from the natural claustrophobia born of a world that is almost completely 3 train cars. But what I love most about Branagh’s work on this films is you get that he wanted you to practically smell the steam pouring from the Orient Express.
Shot in 65 mm, Branagh creates the 30’s through extraordinarily detailed sets on the train itself but succeeds in infusing his film with a sense of romance that I feel when I picture being on an old steam train rocketing through the snow covered mountain tops. His eye for detail is incredible in everything from the wardrobe, luggage tags, to the ceilings in the stations in Istanbul. Inside this world, Branagh again shows his love for the classics in the way he introduces his character into this world. Often times taking his time and choosing more so to introduce them via their actions from afar as opposed to the glamour shot. He takes his time, often following characters through all three of the cars on the Orient Express in a single shot.
If you’ve read the book, the film is a very faithful adaption of the book and Branagh matches the tension and the build in conflict beat for beat. And choosing to expand ever so slightly on our protagonist played by Branagh the legendary Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Giving more for Poirot, and Branagh, to play with creates a character that is far more engaging and as far from and Sherlock Holmes references, you would ever think. Branagh leads a cast that is every bit as equal to Sydney Lumet’s 1974 adaption of Murder on the Orient Express. And if you’re not aware of just how legendary and talented that cast was, Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset are just a fraction of the cast that won the film an academy award in 1974.
Branagh’s cast consists of Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari (if you haven’t heard of him yet. Wait until Gut Ritchie’s Aladdin debuts. He plays Jafar).
Branagh’s mastery of storytelling reaches another level in a film that has over 11 characters in the film and you never once feel like any one of them isn’t a part of this story despite the fact this is Poirot’s story. Something that far more successful directors still struggle to grasp. Anyone that’s seen an X-Men film knows what I’m talking about.
With Branagh, this cast delivers some of the best performances they have in a long time, especially with Depp, who plays American “businessman” Edward Ratchett. For a few years, I feel Depp has been phoning in his performances as the CGI covers the rest. But when he’s acting again Branagh, you get to see the Depp from years ago. You forget the years of playing the tired and overdone pirate and instead you are watching two of the greatest actors of a generation acting against each other and it’s truly engaging.
This is a cast that has come to play. Especially Josh Gad who comes out of nowhere with an incredibly engaging and surprisingly nuanced dramatic performance. But the true winner of this cast is Michelle Pfeiffer playing Caroline Hubbard. Branagh builds these performances of his actors with the story and Pfeiffer makes the entire ending well and truly her’s. And that is not an easy task when you look at the talent in this cast. An engaging performance for Pfeiffer to start that goes into some truly comfortable places will have you legitimately leaning forward.
I don’t want to call Murder on the Orient old-school filmmaking. But in a world of CGI superhero, pirates and creatures, this film kind of is. Instead, I’m going to call it a homage. A throwback murder mystery that is a truly refreshing bit of cinema to watch thanks to Branagh’s solid direction and Michael Green’s writing. This film is worth top marks in any rating system and well worth the 5 out of 5 stars I’m giving it now. See this movie. I promise you that you will enjoy it.
As it stands, Murder on the Orient Express came in third at the box office on it’s opening weekend. But unlike Thor: Ragnarok, the 2-time box office champ, Murder on the Orient Express made back its budget and then some in one weekend. The same can be said for films like Baby Driver. And in a year where smaller budgets and indie films like Marc Webb’s Gifted, Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal, Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River are being heard as every bit as good or better than the big budget studio films, you can tell the tide is starting to turn and studios are beginning to see that audiences want more than just superheroes.
Right now the great films are still hard to find in the shadow of the Marvel and DC. Limited releases and smaller amounts of theatres tend to do that. But, much like the piecing together the clues to a good murder mystery, these smaller films can be but tremendously satisfying when you do find them.