When are remakes necessary? This is a question which remains a popular one as Hollywood continues to suffer from a relatively nasty case of remake-itis. When can a film be remade, and when should a movie be left well enough alone? This is an interesting question to say the least. Murder on the Orient Express is a fascinating film through which to explore the question of remakes. How does the stylish mystery live-up to the many previous retellings of the story?
Murder on the Orient Express is a retelling if the classic Agatha Christie novel. The story follows legendary detective Hercule Poirot as he finds himself trapped on the “Orient Express”. One night, a murder happens on the snowbound train. With no where else to go, the murderer is apparently trapped among the passengers. As such, only Poirot is able to solve the crime. The film features an all-star cast, led by British theatrical legend Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. He’s backed by by a striking crop of A-listers: Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Olivia Colman, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom, Jr. to name a few. Branagh directs the Michael Green penned script.
The character of Hercule Poirot is a legendary one, and presents some big shoes to fill for actor Kenneth Branagh. Actor David Suchet’s portrayal of the character is the stuff legends are made of, and powerhouse actors Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov also made their mark on the character in the last forty years.
As such, the thought of Branagh jumping into this role felt decidedly worrisome. The treatment of the character in the questionably edited trailers didn’t serve to help matters, especially looking at that mustache. Questionable and distracting facial hair aside, Branagh approaches the part with gusto. The film is inherently a tricky one… fans of Suchet and his portrayal need to separate themselves from the legendary performance. This isn’t Suchet’s Poirot. Furthermore, audience members who go into this film with fresh memories or perhaps wanting Suchet will likely find themselves disappointed.
Branagh brings his own spin to the timeless character, which is respectable and refreshing. From the opening scenes it’s clear the actor is trying to carve out his own spin of the role. The path is a rocky one, not without hitches and glitches. There are some moments of injected humor which fall a bit flat. There are points where his Belgian accent seems somewhat inconsistent. However, Branagh’s performance is largely solid. He hits his pace into the second act, and for most of the film disappears into the character. Say what you will about the mustache, Branagh puts forward a solid and respectable performance, definitely worthy of the acting legend.
Murder on the Orient Express features an ensemble packed to the gills with a-list talent. The camera adopts a very simple style, often letting the talented cast carry the weight of the scene. A number of the actors have definite moments to shine.
Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley are particularly good in their parts, as is the always amazing Olivia Colman. Each of the performers thrive, even as they are shot from relatively close. The camera takes a fairly passive presence, instead letting their faces and emotions do the work in the scene.
While much of the camera work seems fairly passive, there are a few moments of strange directing where an oddly active camera interrupts the flow. A few scenes are shot very strangely, definitely standing out in the movie.
The first instance comes fairly early in the film as Poirot first enters the Orient Express. The camera tracks down the length of the train exterior in a single take as Poirot interacts with each of our characters. The take is impressive; however, the shot is taken through the exterior train windows. As it moves down the side of the train, the shot feels isolating and alienating. It deliberately keeps the audience outside of the action going on inside. The windows are not clear and crisp, thus it isn’t easy to see through. Furthermore, Branagh repeats this tactic at scattered points throughout the film to much the same effect. Perhaps it has to do with space working inside the train, but what he’s attempting doesn’t seem to work.
Another interesting (but not effective) tactic is seen when Branagh shoots from the ceiling. He does this in two relatively important moments. The camera stays fairly static in the ceiling, looking down as the actors proceed throughout the scene. In a film which tends to let the actors dictate the flow of a scene, the moment dwarfs the performers, pulling the audience back from the action. It is distracting and doesn’t work.
Finally, the treatment of the mystery is worthy of discussion. The ending isn’t a secret (this story has been told a number of times). Does this hamper enjoyment of the narrative? With the story being so well-known, it’s easy to watch the progression of the mystery, look at the clues, and attempt to track Poirot’s method. However, the film seemingly struggles with the murder. Clues are glossed over quickly. Interestingly, there are two characters (no spoilers!) who are saved for an important beat towards the end of the second act. The absence of these two throughout the story feels exceptionally awkward when their presence is revealed. Branagh is known for his faithful retellings (his film version of Hamlet is notoriously 4 hours long), and while this scene could play better in other mediums, it doesn’t work well in this film version.
Murder on the Orient Express is an interesting film with some definite good points. The film’s ensemble is loaded with star power at all levels, and each are given an opportunity to shine. Furthermore, Kenneth Branagh does everything he can to take the iconic role of Hercule Poirot, and put his own stamp on it. However, the film struggles visually and narratively in places. As such, this version of the classic story doesn’t present anything new or unique. Rather, this leads to a question: does this story really need to be retold?
Murder on the Orient Express is in theaters now.