Agatha Christie, 20th-century’s master crime novelist, is the highest-selling novelist of all time.
With 2-billion books sold, she’s behind only the Bible and Shakespeare.
But a quick survey of my inner and outer circles either proves that people in general just don’t read anymore or that pop-culture — in America — has room for Sherlock Holmes but not for Hercule Poirot, Christie’s master sleuth who’s appeared in 33 of her novels and a set of films.
Poirot last appeared in 2013 in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case with actor David Suchet ending a 24-year turn as the detective for the United Kingdom’s ITV.
Returning to cinemas for the first time 1982’s Evil Under the Sun, Poirot takes on the form of Kenneth Branagh who also directs a a stacked ensemble cast featuring the likes of Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Willem Defoe, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. It could have done no less — watch any crime procedural on television, and you can spot the guilty criminal based solely on the guest star making the cameo.
In Murder on the Orient Express, it takes a village to come up with a master plan.
Aboard the Orient Express train, private detective Poirot becomes embroiled in a murder-mystery after Samuel Ratchett (Depp), a shady rug dealer, is killed in his sleep. Everyone on the first-class car becomes a suspect, and Poirot’s investigation will reveal a plot that will test his own notions and conscience.
One of the movie’s themes is balance, but the film’s first and second halves feel unequally weighted. We’re introduced to Hercule and his reputation as the world’s greatest detective before a lineup of unusual suspects are brought in, one by one, until the luxury car is packed with an odd assortment of varying personalities.
Poirot’s investigation runs as a sequence of interviews with deceivers, walls, and meticulously crafted facades building characterization despite the story and not because of it. If you fancy a whodunit, you’ll have to choose between a laundry list of superstars embodying suspects, like the racist Gerhard Hardman (Dafoe) or Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Dench).
Consequently, you’re right no matter who you guess and wrong at the same time. Poirot discovers that all of the suspects collectively conspired to kill Ratchett and took turns stabbing him. Poirot would have been hard-pressed to take the theory that a lone assailant killed Ratchett and left the train if not for a set of coincidences and overheard conversations that ultimately kept him digging for the truth.
While the acting is great, and the the production value is there — Murder on the Orient Express is a revenge story served frigidly cold, and the lack of urgency and suspense kills the vibe until the final scenes deliver the group’s motive with a passionate crescendo.
It’s a film that may have played better in reverse because the film’s ending is its purpose. The exploration of balance, revenge as social justice, and the domino effect of loss in the backend feels so emotionally heavy compared to the structurally sound but sterile frontend.
If this is the intro for a saga — if Murder on the Orient Express is an extended prologue playing right before the intro credits to a larger movie — count me in. Branagh’s Poirot is intelligent, eccentric, and complicated in all of the right ways.
As a standalone, it’s complimentary fare — a decent ride with an surprise destination.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Brannagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Olivia Colman