A modern remake of a very successful movie from the 1970s (based in its turn on a bestselling and influential novel) usually sounds like a cash grab and, more often than not, a recipe for disaster. However, once in a while, there comes a rare film that subverts all these preconceived notions and becomes a pleasant surprise for the audience; such is the case of this year’s Murder on the Orient Express, a top-notch, tastefully made period drama with enough qualities to satisfy both diehard fans of the original and newcomers to the story.
The plot is well known and stays as close as possible to Agatha Christie’s novel. The action takes place in the 1930s on the Orient Express train and follows the world famous detective Hercule Poirot as he travels to France and is recruited to solve the murder case of a wealthy businessman on the same train. With only a few days at his disposal, he has to uncover the dark secrets of the other passengers in order to find the killer and prevent the loss of innocent lives. Kenneth Branagh’s film adds nothing new to the story, so it is probably best enjoyed by people who have not read the book or seen the original; however, while it may lack the novelty factor for some, the movie more than makes up for this in high production values and strong direction.
Indeed, if there is one thing this movie does right, it is recreating the atmosphere of Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, a bygone age of elegance and refinement, when men wore costumes at all times and smoking was considered fashionable. The makers of the film clearly did not spare any expense when it comes to costume design or gorgeous sets, conjuring up every location in minute detail – from the London train station to the mountains in Croatia – and offering viewers an immersive experience. Of course, none of this would matter if the movie did not benefit from confident, assured direction to increase the suspense of the plot; luckily, actor-director Kenneth Branagh brings his unique style to the plate in order to make this new version stand out from the rest. In this sense, he manages to find an even tone between humour and tragedy and also to maintain a reasonably fast-paced, tense rhythm, which keeps the audience engaged. Moreover, the sense of claustrophobia is heightened by the use of close-ups, which provide us with an insight into the mind of the protagonists; equally notable is the effective use of black and white flashbacks to reveal clues which point to the identity of the killer; surprisingly, they manage not to feel tiresome, in spite of their frequent appearance.
Probably the biggest selling point of this movie is its all-star cast: A-list names in Hollywood such as Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench – among many others – provide a master class in acting, each one of them bringing to life the essence of their eclectic characters and each of them playing a unique role in this large puzzle the detective has to solve. Standout performances include Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, a visibly tormented woman with a mysterious past, who easily switches from helpless victim to seductive and manipulative vixen; Daisy Ridley as governess Mary Debenham, a secretive character who knows more than she is willing to confess; and Kenneth Branagh himself, who infuses the figure of the genius, but bizarre detective Hercule Poirot with a lot of humour, perfectly capturing both his mannerisms and his Belgian-French accent.
The film overall can be viewed as a reflection on the difficulty of establishing boundaries between right and wrong, emphasizing just how ineffective justice is in particular situations. While in the opening scenes of the film Poirot is seen as a know-it-all figure who unmasks criminals and serves justice accordingly, his subsequent findings on the Orient Express and his final speech to the other travellers subverts this idea, forcing him to reexamine his approach and to question the relationship between absolute justice and morality.
All in all, Murder on the Orient Express is a beautiful, smart and exciting movie, serving both as Hollywood escapism and as potential food for thought after you have left the cinema. Not to be missed by fans of the book and also regular cinemagoers in the mood for a quality remake.
By Matei Botez