Elegantly filmed and put together with great craftsmanship, this new version of “Murder on the Orient Express” is fine entertainment for an evening but it lacks the elements that would make it a true classic. Remakes inevitably will suffer by comparison to earlier versions because of changes that might need to be made to the story, the use of technology that distracts from an older version of the same events, or simply nostalgia. We can’t unsee that which we have previously watched, and we can’t unknow that which has been previously unraveled for us. Kenneth Branagh can’t escape comparisons to the Sidney Lumet version from 1974. There is much to be admired here but in the final analysis, this film will live in the shadow of it’s older twin.
There are things to compliment about the film, but let’s save those for the end and start with the disappointments. The first thing that I noticed is that the score of the film is serviceable but not elegant. Patrick Doyle has worked with director Branagh on a number of projects and he has a great track record on many contemporary films. Unfortunately there is nothing that stands out about this music. It sometimes helps build a little tension, but it does not accomplish the same thing that the score from the 1974 movie provided, romance. Listen to the opening musical passage as the train leaves the station, it is light, elegant and decidedly romantic in a traditional sense. It sets the tone for the whole film and that touch provided by the late Richard Rodney Bennett is sorely missing in the new incarnation.
Another element of the new film that I think is problematic, is the very rapid introduction of characters, many of whom are shown before we even get to Istanbul. There is a very solid attempt to familiarize us with the detective Hercule Poirot at the start of the movie. The eccentricity that Albert Finney brought to the part in manner of dress and personal grooming cannot be matched, so Branagh goes for character in some idiosyncrasies. As he solves a puzzle in Jerusalem that starts off like a bad joke, we get a small taste of the OCD that the character must suffer from. He manages to be cordial however, to even the most tiresome people he encounters. Branagh lets his mustache do a lot of the acting for him. Other than Poirot however, we get very little from the other characters by way of personality. They often feel like pieces on a board game being moved around merely for the benefit of blocking the detective’s progress. That is especially true of the four youngest passengers on the train, the Count and Countess and the Governess and the Doctor.
Now for a few things that work. Johnny Depp has been scorned quite a bit the last few years for his personal life and film selection. In this movie however, he plays an ensemble character very effectively and let’s just say that he gets treated the way a person guilty of his crimes probably deserves. Depp had the right attitude as the gangster Ratchett, he is self confident and sniveling at the same time. The exchange between him and Poirot over a piece of cake was a dlightful sequence of droll put downs by the detective. He also has an effective moment with Michelle Pfeiffer in the hallways of the train. For her part, Pfeiffer started off a little rocky but by the climax of the film, her performance settled into a more intriguing character. The film also features Penelope Cruz, Jason Gad, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench, none of whom manage to make much of an impression despite all the histrionics involved. The reveal of the plot comes much too rapidly and the flashbacks to the events that launched the whole affair are lifeless.
It’s a good old fashioned plot and the performance of Branagh as the Belgian detective that make this worth seeing. The sets are fine but my memory of the original is that it was more detailed and elegant, even without all the special effects computer graphics. If you are looking for a night out, this is still doing business and you will find that it is entertaining enough. If you are staying home however, watch the ’74 version and appreciate the old time storytelling and performances that make the movie so memorable.