Boy, is Murder on the Orient Express a hard book to adapt. Everything lies in that ingenious solution, and for it to work, a number of elements need to be kept intact. The most important one? The number of suspects. Ideally, with any other Christie book, you could snip away a couple that aren’t too important so you can build up the ones you have left. Orient Express is the exception. Every character, no matter how peripheral, is integral to the story. So you have to leave them alone. You can be creative with the doctor, of course. David Suchet’s version tossed the Hardman character and had the doctor figure in his place; this version subsumes him into Arbuthnot, who is originally an army colonel in the book. The key is twelve suspects—no more, no less.
The problem is the fact that you can’t properly develop twelve characters in the span of two hours. It’s just not possible. It would be too boring. Sidney Lumet’s version with Albert Finney is probably the most faithful in that regard because Poirot manages to sit down with every single suspect. And yet, unsurprisingly, this methodical procedure gets tiresome to watch after a while. Suchet’s version has Poirot properly interview maybe half the suspects, and back then people complained some characters were given the shaft. So what to do? I think Branagh’s version has the right approach. Everyone gets an interview, some longer than others. They don’t happen consecutively, so the film doesn’t fall into an obvious lull. Some characters, like Marquez, Fraulein Schmidt and the Andrenyis, don’t get much screentime, but we know they’re there because they’re always in the background. The important thing is that every clue is there, as well as the tragic backstory that gives the crime its meaning.
If you’re not a Christie fan (or her brand of mysteries), then you won’t get much from this. I’ve read the book and seen the other versions (well, not the Alfred Molina one—yet). I know this story well, and I know why it works. I’m amazed to say this, because I wasn’t expecting it, but this is probably the best adaptation I’ve seen. I largely agree with how it changes up the source material, striking a good balance between self-seriousness and camp. I think the cast, even if it’s not as star-studded as the 1970s version, is a good mix of faces that understand the people they’re portraying. And I think Branagh is suitably ridiculous as Poirot without losing the character’s inherent charm and persnickety foibles. He’s not David Suchet, no. But he’s good enough, and I’m glad he’s all set to reprise the role for Death in the Nile. Branagh is just too fun to watch, and the only thing he could work on for next time is his accent.
On the whole, Murder on the Orient Express is period fare at its most ostentatious. I think the lukewarm reception has a lot to do with how blatantly this film sticks to its time, save for a few key alterations that nuance Christie’s observations on race. It’s not “modern” except when it implicitly comments on the story’s political correctness. It also doesn’t attempt to meddle with the now-iconic solution, making its very existence dubious to some who think it’s already been done to death. But you know what? None of these things really matter. It’s based on a good book set on a beautiful train, about a crime that is both preposterous and completely compelling. Every time I watch this story, my heart twinges with sorrow at the outcome. This version does a fantastic job of hammering home the tragedy of it. I was a skeptic before this, believe me. Now, I exonerate Branagh’s ambition, because he’s done well. He’s honored Christie’s genius.
P.S. Some critics have complained that this is unsolvable until Poirot’s summation. This is not true. First, you need to understand the concept of red herrings. Poirot basically announces which clues he deems are important, and you also have to realize that misdirection is possible at every turn in mysteries of this nature. If some clues don’t make sense, then they don’t make sense for a reason. Secondly, this version is much less blatant about, shall we say, connecting the dots to the Armstrong case than previous versions. It’s actually doing your intelligence a favour by not hammering you over the head about roles and motives, because that gives the game away far too soon. For the uninitiated, if you pay attention and listen, I truly believe you can work things out before Poirot reveals it to you. But it won’t happen quickly. And that’s a good thing. The fun of this is being shocked/surprised by the ending, isn’t it?