Why do people think that they can improve on Agatha Christie? One of the greatest strengths of Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film of “Murder on the Orient Express” was its near-compulsive fidelity to her novel, and the craftsmanship with which it laid out the intricacies of the narrative. Kenneth Branagh’s remake isn’t the bastardization that the 2001 CBS telefilm starring Alfred Molina—a horridly updated version—was. Nor does it careen as far in the direction of modern moralizing and religiosity as the 2010 ITV television adaptation starring David Suchet (one of the last films in that actor’s mostly admirable series of Christie stories) did.
But this new take on “Murder” does involve modifications that, quite frankly, are unnecessary and unhelpful. Characters are pointlessly altered and/or combined: Col. Arbuthnot, the military man played in Lumet’s film by Sean Connery, becomes Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.) who also sort of assumes the part played by elderly Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris in 1974). The Swedish missionary portrayed by Ingrid Bergman the first time around becomes a hot-blooded Latina (Penélope Cruz). The Russian count played in a courtly fashion by Michael York for Lumet is now a smoldering, hot-tempered dancer (a nod, no doubt, to the fact that he’s played by Sergei Polunin) who apparently also has martial-arts talent. Hardman, the Pinkerton man played by Colin Blakely for Lumet, here poses as a Nazi-spouting Austrian professor (Willem Dafoe). Some of the changes are clearly made to allow for ill-advised “contemporary” touches—Hardman’s contempt for the African-American Arbuthnot, for example. But none are especially successful.
Then there is the characterization of Hercule Poirot. He remains, as Branagh plays him, a man obsessed with order—but unlike in Suchet, or Lumet’s Poirot Albert Finney (or Peter Ustinov’s later version; the less said about Tony Randall’s maladroit assumption of the character, the better), the obsession is depicted as a harmless, humorous tic (and it’s not always observed anyway—Christie’s Poirot would cringe at his hair being disheveled, as Branagh’s often is, though his prodigious moustaches—taken to absurd lengths—remain unalterable).
And that points to the fact that Branagh’s Poirot is younger, sprightlier and given to far more physicality that the detective’s previous incarnations. He isn’t taken to quite the action-hero lengths that Sherlock Holmes was in Guy Ritchie’s pictures with Robert Downey, Jr., but he does engage in a chase under a railroad bridge and indulge in a walk atop a railway car—as well as put on a show of exposing a criminal in a Jerusalem prelude that involves pre-positioning his cane in the very place where it can literally trip up the culprit. This is not your father’s Poirot, and it’s not an improvement.
Still, there is still a considerable amount of fun to be had from this journey on the fabled train, despite some lurches and bumps. First of all, Christie’s basic plot, essentially a locked-door mystery set on a train stopped on its tracks by an avalanche and constructed with all her skill in misdirection, remains a crackerjack affair, almost as pleasurable to watch unfold when you know the ending as it was the first time around. Michael Green’s laying out of its twists and turns isn’t as sure-footed as Paul Dehn’s was for Lumet—he steers one toward the big revelation too ham-fistedly—but it’s workmanlike and gets the job done.
And visually the film is a winner. Branagh’s decision to shoot in 65mm pays dividends in the gorgeous shots of the train moving through the snow-covered mountains, and also allows the many felicities of Jim Clay’s production design, Alexandra Byrne’s costumes and Rebecca Alleway’s set decoration to register beautifully in Haris Zambarloukos’ ever-elegant widescreen images. Mark Audsley’s editing is reasonably good, too, avoiding the sense of stasis that sometimes afflicted Lumet’s film while keeping things fairly clear. Unfortunately Patrick Doyle’s score doesn’t at all match Richard Rodney Bennett’s in the earlier version, with its lovely waltz.
Under Branagh’s efficient but uninspired direction, none of the cast members makes the vivid impressions many of Lumet’s did in brief strokes. The best of the lot are probably Dafoe, Judi Dench, replacing Wendy Hiller as the imperious Russian countess, and Derek Jacobi standing in for John Gielgud as the stiff-upper-lip butler. The others are okay, but don’t match their earlier counterparts. Even Johnny Depp comes off as second-best to Richard Widmark as the dastardly Ratchett.
In sum, Branagh’s remake of the Christie classic is enjoyable enough, but it’s not a patch on Lumet’s 1974 “cavalcade of stars” version. It does, however, reaffirm the principle that most of the “improvements” an adapter might be inclined to make to the grande dame’s work should be resisted. Some things are best left as they were.