Agatha Christie is one of the premiere mystery authors in history. Shy of perhaps Arthur Conan Doyle, the intricacies of each character in Christie’s novels radiates with a life and depth few writers ever fully realize within this genre. And in her great Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, she developed an anomaly in literature; a brilliant crime-solver as equal in his pristine deduction skills as he is in his whimsical arrogance. Or is it confidence? That is open for debate. What is not, is that Christie’s work has also proven a difficult task for adaptations, the most successful being the 1974 Albert Finney version of Murder on the Orient Express. Over 40 years since, Kenneth Branagh has taken on the task of an update of the novel both in front of and behind the camera. And he brings with him a mustache so bombastic, it could easily take out Sam Elliott in a fair fight.
For those unaware, Hercule Poirot is the world’s greatest detective. Just ask him, he’ll tell you. After an energetic setup, wittingly affirming Poirot’s quirks and genius as he swiftly resolves a case, our hero finds himself needing to hitch a ride on his friend Bouc’s train. Once aboard the titular Orient Express, Poirot interacts with numerous patrons brandishing suspicious eyes. Those type of eyes which are constantly shifting about, ready to dance a mambo or boil a bunny, you just never know. You might not know WHERE this is all going, but even the laziest of viewers knows a game of murder is about to be afoot!
As an avid fan of mysteries, I refuse to divulge any more details on the plot, as the discovery is paramount in a film such as this. If you want spoilers, there’s an entire book for the reading. Suffice it to say, shortly after the train is slightly derailed, a murder occurs. Bouc needs to solve this crime before they reach the next stop, where local authorities will likely point to the easiest and most racially biased suspect (it’s the 1930s).
Poirot reluctantly agrees to postpone his vacation and identify the guilty party. The remainder of the film follows his accumulation of clues, coincidences, pertinent history, and extended interrogation of the 12 likely suspects still currently breathing. It all builds to an audacious ending that was always a hard sell in the book, and Branagh somehow pulls off masterfully.
As the kids say, this is my jam. Or was that when I was a kid? I can’t remember anymore. What I do recall is spending years of my youth enraptured in the worlds of Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, yet never quite receiving a stellar representation of – forgive me, Finney fans – Christie’s iconic creation. I was never in doubt of Kenneth Branagh’s direction skills, Dead Again remains one of my all-time favorite mysteries (which makes Derek Jacobi’s appearance here almost heart-warming). What I was concerned with was his take on Poirot. The trailer did not convey much of his performance, and instead only showcased the magnitude of that ‘stache.
Finally, I have my Poirot!
Let Branagh adapt all of the Agatha Christie books as far as I am concerned. I absolutely loved his take on the roguish detective. His meticulous nature was beautifully captured by Branagh’s playful ways, and Poirot’s hardened focus is fiercely carried through his hawkish stare, each interaction a complete hypothesis of his opponent’s life story. And that bountiful mustache, dear God man, give it an origin story! The Poirot mustache is a pivotal point to the character’s ideology, and here it carries an aura all its own. As the film wound down, I often found myself wondering if this mustache has life goals after this case, will it split up from its owner and take on criminals itself? We can only hope so. Magnificence!
As for the rest of the cast, it’s difficult to expand on the characters without possibly laying out their motives and that is just not going to happen here. In a smorgasbord of all-stars (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench), it is a true testament to the filmmakers that no role shines over another. In a movie like this, showboats are unwelcome. These characters need to feel lived in, worn, established. They need to blend in. There are numerous arcs to unfurl, and that does knock the film down a peg or two as it fights to give each their due diligence, yet ultimately hinders little in the flow of the tale.
One element of note, the cinematography is breathtaking. Kenneth Branagh determined the best course of action for this film was to shoot in 70mm, and Haris Zambarloukos’ work here astoundingly proves his case. Blustery snowscapes, captivating mountain vistas, elaborate overhead shots, a haunting train trestle. The direction and cinematography afford the audience reason to venture out to a cinema for a mystery typically situated in constricted cabin cars.
I have been both anticipating and fearing Kenneth Branagh’s take on this classic in fictional literature for most of this year, and those fears were in vain. With a stellar cast well-versed in allowing a scene to breathe, and a director who understands both visuals and storytelling, I was left with a film that finally brought a great detective into the modern world.
With a hint of a future series, I can only pray Branagh returns for yet another run as the enigmatic Hercule Poirot. And next time, maybe even give that mustache a gun of its own.
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad
Screenplay by Michael Green
Directed by Kenneth Branagh