Agatha Christie gets a modern makeover

20th Century Fox photo

Jordan Bosch

Special to the Times-Herald

It’s one of Agatha Christie’s most enduring stories and for good reason.

Some are calling Murder on the Orient Express a remake because of the popular 1974 film directed by the great Sidney Lumet, and starring a cast of heavyweights including Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, and Sean Connery, but this is a story that’s been adapted numerous times in both film and television, and Kenneth Branagh’s new movie is only the latest.

Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is the self-proclaimed greatest detective in the world on his way back to London from Istanbul via the Orient Express. He’s surrounded by a collection of unusual strangers, including one who comes to him fearing for his life and asking for protection. The following day, as an avalanche has blocked the trains’ path temporarily stalling it, that same man is found murdered. And so with everyone on the train hiding something and trapped together, it’s up to Poirot to solve the mystery not only of who committed the murder, but why.

This is a surprisingly loyal adaptation. While it does take a number of liberties, adding some action, and making sensible cinematic changes (like not setting the entirety of Poirot’s investigations in a handful of compartments), it’s plot and direction stick very close to the source.

Like the earlier film, this one has a pretty great ensemble cast. The best performances are from Michelle Pfeiffer as the talkative American, Penelope Cruz as the devout maid, and surprisingly enough, Josh Gad as the secretary to the victim.

The film diversifies the cast a bit too. The book was already one of Christie’s most diverse, being set outside Britain and featuring a large cast of non-British characters, but the film goes a little further. So, Greta Ohlsson becomes Pilar Estravados, Antonio Foscarelli becomes Biniamino Marquez and white Col. Arbuthnot becomes black Dr. Arbuthnot. The latter is played quite well by Leslie Odom Jr. and often alongside him is Daisy Ridley as the clever governess, holding her own fairly in this cast of talents that also includes Willen Defoe and Judi Dench. But among these internationally-known stars, it’s good to see actors like Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, and Lucy Boynton given a little bit of limelight.

And as for Poirot, Branagh’s pretty good. Taking on this role was no easy task, especially considering Branagh’s following up the great David Suchet, who perfected the part. But he gets the mannerisms, personality, and ego down right — everything that made Poirot such a fun character, despite looking nothing like him except for an exaggerated moustache.

Branagh really knows how to stage a scene, and though the train setting doesn’t get to benefit from his mastery of production design, he does shoot his actors closely and tensely. The actual murder scene, when we do see it in flashback, is a lot more effective than other versions.

Murder on the Orient Express is a very good film, exactly what you’d want from an Agatha Christie adaptation. Branagh was smart enough to know where he could deviate from the story and where he had to keep it intact.

If you’re not a fan of Christie’s mysteries though, this movie isn’t going to change that, which may be along with the slower pace for modern audiences, its greatest shortcoming. But my expectations were exceeded, and with the finale teasing a possible Death on the Nile film, I’m hopeful that should it happen, it’s in the right hands.