By Catherine Pearson
The Murder on the Orient Express advertising campaign has been fabulous. The trailer showing the famous train darting across the remote snowy landscape, the neon writing that introduces the suspects, and the glorious swell of the Imagine Dragon’s hit ‘You Make Me a Believer’ as Kenneth Branagh’s new Hercule Poirot is unveiled. It’s spine-tingling stuff. The film’s poster is gorgeous too; the train’s lights glaring in the dark as plumes of red smoke billow from its chimney. Mmm, tantalising murder-y fun awaits.
In the tradition of the 1974 film, Kenneth Branagh directs and stars amongst an all-star cast, and it’s an impressive selection of names. Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer… as well as everyone’s favourite Brits Olivia Coleman and Daisy Ridley. It’s a treat and, much like the opulence of the train itself, it’s a throwback to times gone by. While the famous and wealthy dressed to the nines to travel, the big Hollywood films pulled in the crowds with big names and swanky sets. If you’ve ever seen Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel you’ll be getting the picture.
The Orient Express is set to travel from Istanbul to various stops in Western Europe and, when Hercule Poirot receives a telegram about a case in London, he manages to arrange a spot onboard with an old friend; conveniently, the director of the train. Much to the displeasure of both Poirot and arts dealer assistant Hector (Josh Gad), it’s a room share. It’s not long, however, before things start going horribly wrong. An avalanche stops the train in its tracks while on a rickety-looking wooden bridge that towers over a valley, and several disturbances that night wake the Belgian detective. The following morning, a body is discovered. A man has been murdered and, as the film’s poster says, everyone’s a suspect.
The interior of the Orient Express has been crafted with loving care by the set designers and every scene is infused with a sense of grandeur and luxury that screams “I could never afford this”. The art deco fixtures, the dark varnished wood, the cutlery lain out with the aid of a tape measure; it’s a feast for the eyes that will transport you to a different time.
The same cannot always be said of the external shots, however. While some of the shots of the snowy wilderness are rather beautiful and eerily isolating, the chilly setting is rendered with more than a little help from the special effects team and individual images can look like they’ve been copied straight out of The Polar Express. If you haven’t seen this film, it’s a CGI Tom Hanks driving a bunch of creepy CGI kids to the North Pole on a CGI train. That looks like the Orient Express.
Instead, it’s the camera work inside the train that deserves a whole ton of praise. The discovery of the body is shot from above; a disconcerting aerial view that reduces everyone but the dead body to just moving heads in the small space. This was perhaps done to keep the film to a 12A certificate, minimising how much gore could be seen, but it also works wonderfully in quite literally distancing the audience from the man lying dead in front of us.
What we already know of his character cannot be used to make a snap judgement; it’s time for Poirot (and us, his loyal helpers) to get to work. Aerial shots and unusual camera angles are used brilliantly throughout, with the effect of placing the audience member in the train. You feel like a voyeur, stood off to the side to conceal your presence or pinned to the ceiling because there’s no room in the aisle. It’s very clever filmmaking.
Kenneth Branagh is an entertaining Poirot, bringing to the role a near-perfect Belgian accent and the detective’s much-loved eccentricity. The film opens with Poirot sending a young Turkish boy out on an errand to find a pair of equally sized eggs for him to eat for his breakfast. As the child returns with the produce, out of breath and hopeful, Poirot places the two eggs into cups and pulls out a tape measure (again with the tape measures!). To his dismay, one is much shorter than the other. It’s not your fault, Poirot reassures the boy, deflated and resigned to prospect of having to find an alternative meal.
Any Agatha Christie fan is well aware that Poirot’s scrupulous detective work is helped along by a fair dollop of OCD, and Branagh’s performance will raise a few laughs as new quirks are brought to the surface. After a hard day’s work, Poirot enjoys nothing more than donning his outrageous moustache protector and reading some Charles Dickens. It’s an endearing, almost child-like enjoyment as he chuckles to himself in his bunk. “Oh, Dickens!” There is, however, a bizarre moment where Branagh seems to forget Poirot’s famous caution and has a brisk walk along the snow-covered roof of the train while mulling over the case. Hmm, not the Hercule we know.
So, onto this moustache of his. It’s not so much hair, rather a feat of facial engineering, incorporating the classic upper lip ’tache with additional beard for extra welly. Not only is it a bold statement, an attempt to quite literally make this Poirot bigger and better, but it’s also utterly mesmerising. You’d be forgiven for missing some of the man’s dialogue because you’re too busy trying to suss out how it all stays in place.
In light of the recent wave of abuse allegations against Hollywood actors it is a genuine throw-your-hands-up-in-horror scenario that Johnny Depp is still working and so I will make no comment on his performance. Except to say that I would have cast Steve Buscemi. Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer put in very strong performances considering how many characters are interrogated within the just under two hours of running time and the cast rub along very well, coming together to hear Poirot’s verdict in one of the most visually striking Agatha Christie endings you’ll ever see.
Murder On The Orient Express is out now.