Review – Not a Complete Train Wreck (“Murder on the Orient Express”)

I don’t know where director/lead star Kenneth Branagh got that mustache of his for this movie, but it’s SO big it should have its own zip code. But I digress… in this fourth installment of the celebrated Agatha Christie who-done-it murder mystery, we have a fine array of big-name stars and excellent visuals, but is that enough?


On a beautiful day in downtown Jerusalem, 1933, the intrepid and brilliant Belgium detective, Hercule Poirot (Branagh) and his equally impressive mustache solve a theft in town and then he’s off on a well deserved vacation. But, y’know a detectives work is never done and he’s quickly called away to another assignment. Taking up a compartment on the luxurious Orient Express, Poirot meets his train-mates: the really nasty businessman Sam Ratchett (Johnny Depp), his less-than-happy secretary, Hector McQueen (Josh Gad), racist Professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe), African-American Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, jr), man-hungry Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the very grim Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her prim nurse, Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman).

An avalanche en route stalls the train in the middle of nowhere and, let’s face it, you can’t have a murder mystery without a murder, right? So when Ratchett ends up quite dead, the games afoot and Poirot goes on the attack with interrogations of the suspects. Through his dealings with the governess, Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridly), he pieces together clues that leads him to an old case that involved a tragic kidnapping/murder/ suicide (eerily similar to the Charles Lindbergh kidnapping/murder). Could that old case and this murder be related? Poirot soon finds more clues that leads him to uncover that Ratchett was, in fact, John Cassetti, the kidnapper & murderer who got away.

But nothing is making sense as several weird things pop-up (a misplaced kimono, Caroline getting attacked, a burnt note) that lead nowhere. Poirot’s simple conclusion of a lone assassin just doesn’t hold up, until he realizes that his second, far-fetched crazy conclusion, maybe his only explanation. In a dramatic third-act scenario outside the train, he confronts everyone to give his analysis of who killed Ratchett and why. Ironically, this is the best part of the film.

Michael Green, who teamed up to write that Green Lantern movie debacle and a whole bunch of TV shows, adapted Agatha Christie’s novel into a 2hr near-yawn fest. You have a star-studded cast and a fine director, not to mention some great cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos, but Lord that script! Other versions ratchet up the tension, but this script meanders around and lingers too much on style rather than content. Balancing Poirot’s detective skills with his unique style of humor and attitude, Branagh is certainly up for the task (OMG, that mustache!!), but he doesn’t quite pull off that kooky Belgium swagger so associated with the other Poirot’s (Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, David Suchet).

As a director, Branagh comes up short in respect to not shooting many scenes for maximum impact. This is unusual, given he directed Thor and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with great success. The impressive cast are here as just your standard characters thrown together and don’t make much of an impact, save for Gad, Odom, jr and Tom Bateman, who plays the outlandish playboy, Bouc. If you really want to settle back, grab a bowl of popcorn, and enjoy a GOOD version of this novel, try the 1974 film adaptation with Albert Finney. Trust me on this.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)


Agatha Christie’s novel gets the royal treatment here with an all-star cast, headed up by Albert Finney as the famed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot… although in this film, Finney looks more like the bloated Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life and speaking with bizarre accent. But hey, check out the rest of the cast!

Boarding the train in Budapest in 1935, we get a grand scale of occupants: Colonel Arbuthnott (Sean Connery) and his fiance, Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), the befuddled Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) and her prim maid, Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachael Roberts), the Countess Helena Andrenyi (Jacqueline Bisset) and her husband, the Count Andrenvi (Michael York), barley English speaking Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), and motor-mouth Harriet Hubbard (Lauren Bacall). Also on the train is businessman Rachett (Richard Widmark), his very nervous secretary, Hector McQueen (Anthony Perkins), and his butler, Edward Beddoes (Sir John Gielgud).

We learn in a prologue about the kidnap, ransom, and murder of the baby Armstrong (paralleling the Lindbergh tragedy) and maybe this train ride has something to do with that. Anyway, after awhile on the road, er… tracks, Rachett is found murdered in his compartment and, if that wasn’t bad enough, the train is stuck in the snow in Yugoslavia. Looks like it’s Poirot to the rescue! Using his deductive skills and finding clues, he deduces that Mr. Rachett wasn’t Mr. Rachett at all, but Mr. Casetti, the ringleader behind the Armstrong kidnapping & murder who got away.

Now begins the omni-present questioning segment where Poirot tries to get as much info out of each of the suspects as he can. This isn’t easy as it looks because each person appears guilty; even train owner, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam), says everyone is guilty! Watch Ohlsson’s lengthy interrogation, it’s shot in one continuous take! More clues are discovered, more lies are uncovered, the snow drift almost cleared, and Poirot is having trouble figuring who done it. His solution? Gather everyone in the dining car,  go through all his findings, point out who is actually telling the truth, and see what happens. The ending is, quite frankly, not what you’d expect.

Agatha Christie herself didn’t like her books being made into films, and this was no exception. But after seeing this screen adaptation by Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, three of the Planet/Apes movies), she admitted the only thing about the movie she didn’t like was Poirot’s mustache! Seriously! His mustache! Ya listening, Branagh? Also, it was no secret that mega-director Sidney Lumet went for casting Sean Connery first; figuring that if HE was in the film, he could get anyone else he wanted. He was right. All the others jumped on board once they heard that Connery was in the movie. Yes, clout has its privileges.

Although silly at times and some crazy over-acting by Perkins, this is a great version of Christie’s who-done-it, however it does have some rather abrasive editing problems in its flashbacks when recalling the past. Just look past that and enjoy some choice Finney, along with a stellar cast that may have only few lines or two, but are nonetheless well acted. BTW: you can clearly see why Lumet chose Connery first. His scenes are just riveting.

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