Agatha Christie, the queen of suspense, is arguably one of the best female authors in the past century. Known for her slight-of-hand murder mysteries where the killer is often introduced within the first chapter, her books have sold millions of copies, inspired board games like Clue and have been the basis for television episodes including “Family Guy’s” “And Then There Were Fewer” and the BBC’s “Miss Marple” series.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is one of Christie’s best-known stories. The book is inspired by the real life murder case of the Lindbergh baby in 1932. When Bruno Hauptman was convicted of kidnapping and murder and executed. He maintained his innocence until the day of his death. Hauptman is characterized in the book and played by Johnny Depp in the movie.
The story had been adapted into several made for TV movies before this newest 20th Century Fox big screen film. In all actuality, the movie resembles a car adapted into a train. The presence of a plot is there, and many of the characters boast some of Hollywood’s big named actors, but somewhere the translation of a masterpiece book falls into the snowdrifts of the mountains.
The movie opens on the desert city of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall with a young boy running through the city streets carrying a covered box. Already, our train is a bit de-railed. We are then introduced to the rather narcissistic and obsessive-compulsive “world renowned” detective; Hercule Poirot (played by director and star Kenneth Branagh).This peculiar man with his peculiar mustache is a peculiar perfectionist, demanding his eggs be recooked over and over until the eggs are the right height, only to proclaim he blames the chicken for laying uneven eggs.
This scene drags on with the purpose of establishing Poirot as an almost Sherlock-level detective. While his quirkiness is funny at times, the emphasis on his perfectionism is so out of character with his literary counterpart that Poirot gets a bit trite throughout the first act of the two hour movie, before his obsessiveness is completely abandoned during the second and third acts.
The movie chugs along for over 20 minutes before we are introduced to the entire main cast. Johnny Depp portrays the shady soon-to-be-murdered Edward Ratchet. Television star Leslie Odom Jr. and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” Daisy Ridley are the star-crossed lovers Doctor and Miss Mary. Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe and Judi Dench are just a few of the Orient Express’ suspect passengers. The movie’s characters are vastly different from the book characters’ descriptions, personalities and even nationalities, which caused some confusion.
While Christie created a worthwhile backstory for each suspect told in over 100 pages in her book, the movie only really explores two backstories, the detective and the murdered Ratchet. This is unfortunate as there is plenty of time to cover the other backstories as well in order to understand their personal motivation and connection to the dead man. Instead, the movie’s interviews of the suspects feel rushed, sometimes combining several into one montage. It is hard to connect with the characters in the end because of this. Honestly, by the end of the movie, the only character I really cared about was the murdered child.
Perhaps this is the biggest folly with the movie adaptation: there is a lot of wasted time spent on the detective himself and not nearly a sufficient amount of time spent on the rest of the cast, their stories or even the conclusion of the mystery. The murder in the book happens within the first 45 pages, but in the movie it does not clock in until almost an hour in, after the train screeches to a standstill in a snowy avalanche half on the tracks. With the suspects stuck together and time ticking away, the motives unfold rather quickly without much detail. Poirot’s epiphanies come as a surprise with so little detail delivered to the audience.
Poirot himself is connected to the murdered in a roundabout way, but there isn’t any reason to suspect him, and his emotional connection suffers almost until the end of the movie. The show down between Poirot and Dr. Arbuthnot is thrown in in order to drum up drama that the movie doesn’t actually need, just like the multiple crass and unnecessary sexual innuendos and statements. I understand trying to appeal to a modern audience, but Christie left any good writer and director the perfect DNA for a good murder mystery. In fact, it is my humble opinion that the “Family Guy” episodes did a better job of sticking to Christie’s literary values than this latest offering.
I will grant that the trip by train through the snowy terrain is lovely, and the sweeping landscapes certainly give a wondrous background to the grisly murder. The train itself is the true star with beautiful designs, rich interiors and ice-covered windows. Anyone who is into traveling and historical vehicles would enjoy a trip on the Orient Express, although perhaps not as a passenger in this movie. If you enjoy Christie’s work, pick up the book, but I would advise waiting out the snow for the movie. •
Rating: Snowed In!