A classic revisited

Even though “Murder on the Orient Express” is one of legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie’s most-loved and easily appreciated novels, reinterpreting the 1934 masterpiece in a worthy fashion is no small task.  Despite multiple film and television adaptations of the first lady of mystery’s classic story—including the award-winning 1974 film adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet—and a celebrated surprise ending already known to mystery fans, actor and director Kenneth Branagh endeavored to recreate the story in a feature film which came to theaters on Nov. 10.

When the famed Orient Express train departs from Istanbul with both the despicable criminal Ratchett and the eminent Belgian detective Hercule Poirot on board, intrigue is bound to follow.  After an avalanche in the Balkan Mountains halts the train in the early morning, Poirot, the porter and the eleven other passengers in the luxurious, first-class Calais Car wake to find that Ratchett has been brutally stabbed to death in his berth. It is up to Poirot to use his renowned detective skills to find the killer and bring him or her to justice.

While the plot and beautiful setting are enough to entertain and hold one’s interest, Branagh’s adaptation does not meet the standard set by the 1974 version or do complete justice to the book.  Like the 1974 version, the recently released movie features a star-studded cast consisting of Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr. and Kenneth Branagh, to name a few.  Sadly, insufficient time is devoted to character development in a gross misuse of exceptional acting talent.  

The audience does not get to know the characters that are strong and striking in the book since their stories receive the minimal amount of time needed to further the plot.  Especially when compared with the 1974 version, the characters are relatively weak and forgettable, failing to command attention or jump out of the screen.  However, Depp’s interpretation of Ratchett, while verging on cartoonish, provides a more believably villainous antagonist than the former film adaptation.

Additionally, little time is spent analyzing clues and red herrings which are pivotal elements of Poirot’s investigative process.  Instead, the film explores the concepts of justice and the morality of murder to a greater extent than the book, making the story more psychological than thrilling with an unsatisfactory amount of detecting for a Hercule Poirot tale.  

This reallocation of attention fails to pay off, as the philosophical deliberations are uninspiring and the storyline is difficult to follow.  In fact, the film entirely fails to send a single shiver down the spine or keep the eyes open to the point of dryness.  While the story is not meant to be a gruesome thriller, any interpretation of it should at least induce a mild flight of butterflies.

Ultimately, the most recent adaptation of  “Murder on the Orient Express” does not live up to its full potential.  Still, the pairing of the enthralling plot with picturesque cinematography serves to treat the viewer to the old-world glamor and unmatched talent of Agatha Christie, the world’s best-selling author after Shakespeare and the Bible.  

However, the film never drags and is still fundamentally entertaining. Given the recent dearth of quality Hollywood films, “Murder on the Orient Express” is worth seeing if you really want to visit a movie theater.

Film: “Murder on the Orient Express”

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Release: Nov. 10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5