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Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is an exciting novel because it offers the reader a puzzle with which to play. Each chapter is set up to provide evidence, and her famous protagonist Hercule Poirot is constantly working over clues to ask the reader one important question: have you figured it out yet?
Christie’s work is methodical and precise, and she does not rely on sentimentality or emotional overtures to sell her story. Unfortunately, director Kenneth Branagh cannot say the same.
The latest Christie adaptation takes everything that makes Murder so engaging and warps it into a cloying, sentimental mess that feels more like an ego boost for Branagh than it does an homage to one of the greatest crime novelists ever.
The story is a familiar one (it has, after all, been adapted thrice to TV, once to film, and once to a computer game): a train is travelling through Europe, when, just as a murder is committed, snowfall stops its passage. Suddenly, everyone aboard the Orient Express is suspect to a crime the world’s greatest detective sets out to solve.
At first glance, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation looks promising. The intensely-stylised cinematography embraces a mix of dark browns and neon blues, bringing a modern feel to this period drama while staying true to the repressed sophistication of the time.
Branagh plays with the cramped space of the train to gorgeous effect, always finding new ways to present the ensuing drama to the viewer. Not only does this include fascinating angles, but also a trove of shots reliant on sparkling reflections that warp and mask the characters’ faces.
These characters are played by an impressive ensemble cast, including the likes of Branagh himself, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr, Penelope Cruz, and Willem Dafoe — and this star-studded list is but one of the reasons Branagh’s direction is so disappointing.
Despite its glamorous outer layer, Murder misses the heart of puzzle-solving that makes Christie’s work so riveting. The film speeds passed confusing clues, touching on them only when they are found and when Poirot miraculously figures out their true nature.
Never once does Murder remind the viewer of the stray pipe cleaner or the fabricated watch. Clues that took the protagonist chapters to decipher in the novel take Branagh’s Poirot but two scenes.
So what does Murder show, if not the detective’s meticulous process? Sometimes it adds pieces of action where the novel had none — a forgivable change when moving to screen.
Unforgivably, though, Murder gives Poirot an off-screen love interest (or just… an important woman? It’s unclear) and melodramatic, fake deep speeches that point more towards Branagh giving himself meatier work than him trying to do Christie justice.
Nowhere is this more evident than during the film’s climax, when Poirot torments a group of people already traumatised by sharing a train with an unknown murderer. Instead of his usual calm, Poirot flies into an frenzy of untethered irrationality, instantly destroying the viewer’s trust in him.
But this isn’t Murder‘s only faux pas.
The film also has no idea how to handle the strange politics that pollute the 1934 novel. Set in a time when overt racism was the norm, many of the characters are quick to suspect passengers of murder because of the colour of their skin or their countries of birth.
Removing himself from this narrative, Branagh makes clear that he does not condone this behaviour by inserting lines that reject prejudice. But this moral high ground is hypocritical when considering how Branagh treats his female characters — and, most notably, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Mrs Hubbard.
Originally a woman who wouldn’t stop talking about her daughter, Hubbard is transformed into a seductress who instead won’t stop talking about her multiple ex-husbands. The change adds nothing to the story and feels rather like a cheap inclusion of sex to an otherwise sexless film.
It is an injustice to Christie to warp her character to suit the male gaze. And it is an injustice to the audience to feign political correctness when quietly rebranding a doting mother into an insatiable sex symbol.
Murder on the Orient Express is not a faithful adaptation. It is Kenneth Branagh grappling with the source material, desperately warping it into something that fits his understanding of the world. It is a beautiful, hypocritical mess, and Agatha Christie, murder mystery enthusiasts, and that star-studded cast deserve better.