A running joke in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is that Americans can’t pronounce the first name of its hero, Hercule Poirot. He pronounces it, of course, “Air-kyool,” in the French style, and brusquely corrects those who say “Hercules,” like the Roman god. In her 1934 novel, Agatha Christie hardly needed to introduce her readers to her most masterful creation, as she’d already written seven successful novels and many more short stories featuring the detective. But even today’s most well-read moviegoers might not have a working knowledge of Christie’s achievements, so the film takes great pains to familiarize us with the mustachioed Belgian—satisfyingly played by Branagh himself—and his peculiar ways.
An extended prelude features the detective in Jerusalem in the ’30s, fussing over the perfect soft-boiled eggs (which introduces his fastidiousness), then solving with apparent ease a complex case involving a priest, a rabbi, and an imam (which the film uses to highlight his particular ingenuity). Right away, Poirot is pitched as a social misfit and deductive superman, in the style of Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock Holmes, only a little Frenchier, though the film is still very much an old-fashioned, all-star affair, the sort of actorly epic that was especially popular in the mid-20th century, from Grand Hotel to about Sidney Lumet’s own adaptation of Christie’s novel.
Here, the celebrity cavalcade—from stage and screen, America and Great Britain—includes Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Olivia Coleman, and Derek Jacobi. Each actor demonstrates different shades of worry as passengers on the train and potential suspects when, en route to Europe from the Middle East, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a devious industrialist and snarling villain, is murdered in a frenzy of stab wounds. It happens during a storm, just before the Orient Express is stopped by an avalanche, and the world-famous Poirot, on his way to enjoy a much-needed vacation, gets roped into investigating the case against a time constraint—before the train gets dug out and starts moving again, and corrupt local officials take over the inquiry.
The film’s biggest liberty is to make Poirot’s ultimate decision more palatable for American sensibilities.
Poirot interrogates the passengers, sometimes in their compartments but just as often outdoors in the snow. Early on, the camera conspicuously lingers in any open space or large room it can find, as if anxious about getting onto the train and its cinematically confining narrowness. (Cinematographer Haris Zambarkalous’s glittering 70mm images relish the period details of Jim Clay’s production design—glitzy, well-appointed Art Deco spaces—as well as the natural beauty of the sparkling Mediterranean, aboard a ferry.) And once the film gets to the Orient Express, it’s as if Branagh is always itching to get off of it, even having Poirot at one point look over a list of names while standing atop the train for no discernible reason, except perhaps to enjoy the way the sun peeks out between two distant mountain peaks.
All this loitering means that when the central mystery kicks in, the filmmakers must hurry to get through it. The eventual solution to who killed Rachett isn’t simple, involving a Lindbergh-like kidnapping case from many years ago (in which Poirot is somehow an expert), and it would be understandable if people who don’t already know this story well were confused. Characters are introduced but barely developed. (Penélope Cruz’s supporting role amounts to little more than a cameo; in Lumet’s film, the part was juicy enough to win Ingrid Bergman an Oscar.) Branagh, though, does a credible job as Poirot, adding some nice touches—cackling while he reads Dickens, sleeping with a leather protector for his baroque mustache—while also overreaching: The character hardly needs a romantic backstory, but the filmmakers give him one anyway, which mostly allows Branagh to stare wistfully at a framed photograph and mutter ruefully in French.
Brannagh and screenwriter Michael Green clearly enjoy Christie, but they’re also unafraid to take liberties. The most shocking part of the novel is its last page: what Poirot decides to do with the guilty, and how quickly he decides on his course of action. The filmmakers drag out this moral conundrum; the intellectual Poirot, who in the film frequently talks about how issues of good and bad are black and white, must decide whether to listen to his heart and accept that some moral problems are gray. It helps make the ultimate decision more palatable for American sensibilities, which at least traditionally trust the system to handle criminal matters fairly, rather than the caprices of an individual—especially one as weird as Hercule Poirot.