You might have heard the plot of Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. The 1934 novel features her recurring character Hercule Poirot, en route from East to West when a person turns up dead aboard the luxurious wagons. As a seasoned detective, Poirot jumps on solving the murder and interrogates each one of the archetypical passengers. He may or may not bring the killer(s) to justice before the train arrives at its final destination.
Apparently, Christie wasn’t too keen on her novels being turned into films. But it has happened twice with this one, as you may also have heard. The 1974 cinematic adaptation by Sidney Lumet has become a must-see and a classic. The verdict is still out on the 2017 version, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who plays the role of Poirot himself. So far, according to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s not looking good on the critics’ side.
Many people have come out to see Branagh’s movie, though, perhaps due to its predecessor’s fame. A novel-based sequel has already been announced, Death on the Nile. Hopefully Agatha Christie won’t be rolling in her grave.
Recently I watched the new Orient Express, and then the old one once again.
Where do they intersect? Well, the main setting and plot are the same, as is the motive for the murder. (I’m trying not to give you any spoilers in case you don’t know the story.) Both have a star-studded cast. This one’s got Johnny Depp (The Creep), Michelle Pfeiffer (The Actress), Penélope Cruz (The Missionary), Judi Dench (The Princess), among other big and smaller names. The Detective (Branagh) is the only clear protagonist.
Where do they diverge? The newer adaptation starts out in Jerusalem to show off Poirot’s amazing powers of deduction, idiosyncrasies and international renown. I found it a bit unnecessary. Albert Finney’s acting as Poirot in 1974 had been enough to showcase the sleuth’s uncanny abilities and respect he’d earned. To me, the acting in the older version was better overall; the actors seemed to merge into their characters more, rather than playing themselves.
As a bonus, if you want to be armed with a bit of trivia for the next pub quiz: The Missionary’s nationality is different in Branagh’s version. The one played by Ingrid Bergman in Lumet’s version was Swedish, while Penélope Cruz’s was Spanish. These are also their respective mother tongues, and they have the accent to match it.
I’m sure you’ll find other differences along the way. It can be fun to spot them.
Despite having perhaps far too big shoes to fill and being a bit absurd at times, Branagh’s version was fun and beautiful to watch.
And this, despite the disturbing kilos of makeup I felt its actors were wearing. Especially Branagh, who looked strangely brown and cartoonish to me. I’ll admit I was staring too long at Daisy Ridley’s porcelain complexion, though I didn’t even manage to recognize her from her central role in the new Star Wars films until I looked her up later. Maybe she’s not yet famous enough to be playing herself in movies.
The true beauty and draw of the new Orient Express, to me, was its cinematography. Camera shots from outside the train framing each of the characters’ faces within the windows. Shots through a glass pane “spying” on the characters as they lie during interrogation. A shot from the ceiling looking down on Poirot and others outside the murder victim’s chamber, as they talk about what to do next. Not to mention the panoramic shots as the train chugs along icy mountainous passes.
It’s a good movie for the holiday season, as it’s bound to entertain you without keeping you up at night. Nothing very graphic here, nor very thought-provoking. It’s a nice way to wait out a snow storm (could we have a “white Christmas”, after all?) or a full belly.