Murder on the Orient Express: Film Review
There has been a lot of bellyaching out there over the remake of Murder on the Orient Express, based on the 1934 Agatha Christie novel and gloriously filmed in 1974 with a cast of the highest pedigree, including Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, John Gielgud, and Michael York. The film follows Detective Hercule Poirot as he takes a trip aboard the titular luxury train only to encounter the mysterious murder of one of the train’s passengers. With such a top-notch cast and a fascinating story for its premise, the original film was a visual feast and one of Hollywood’s finer whodunits. The remake is a surprisingly well done, elegant and sumptuous to look at, directed with the eye of a true artist, and possessing some nifty performances that could give the original cast a run for their money.
Here’s the thing: It is okay to like both versions and it is not necessary to tear one apart in lieu of another. The remake has its own amazing cast including Kenneth Branaugh (as Poirot), Michelle Pfieffer, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom, Jr., Daisey Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, and Johnny Depp. That is a lot of talent in one place, guided by a director (also Branaugh) who has a reputation for assembling thought-provoking films with a style and touch that set them apart from other filmmakers. To not give this film a chance simply because it is a remake is to close one’s self off to the opportunity to see a great murder mystery reimagined with aplomb.
The central conceit of the film is that a handful of passengers are trapped inside of a luxury train when an avalanche knocks them off the track. During the trains incapacitation, one of the guests is found brutally stabbed in his sleeping compartment. Fortunately for him, the renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Baranaugh) is among the sojourners and immediately begins his investigation as the passengers are interviewed. The ensemble cast is almost universally magnificent as the array of suspects who all turn out to be linked in a fascinating way. Only Michelle Pfieffer seems out of place in their ranks, but then, she’s playing an obnoxious American, so we can’t fault her portrayal for its accuracy.
Murder on the Orient Express is a film that is easy to look at. In fact, it is like gliding through an adult fairy tale. Every frame of the piece glows with a special kind of cinematography and art design magic. From the early moments in the film next to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, to the cacophony of the train station and the complex camera work weaving in and out of train cars, the eyes are privileged to absorb splendor after splendor. The visual highlight of the film is the departure of the train from Istanbul, its myriad minarets and the Hagia Sophia in a spectral glow of blues and greens as the train cuts a swath into the nighttime. Branaugh paints with color and light, and the film is worthy of seeing just for the lens through which he sees this slightly quixotic world.
For me, the original Murder on the Orient Express and its remake are a case of apples and oranges. I love both, find detractions in both, and find things to admire in both. This idea that films cannot be remade successfully is absurd. I come from the world of theatre where plays and musicals are reimagined all the time, each approach a new and fascinating take on the property. Sure, sometimes a revival of a stage piece does not work, but it doesn’t stop us from reveling in the times that it does. Film is just as capable of working this way, but perhaps it is because we watch a film, again and again, that we are so unforgiving of remakes. It is more engrained in our minds and we are only willing to see it a certain way. It’s the familiarity that appeals to us and makes us feel comfortable. Still, I like to explore a new viewpoint or take, and I am certainly glad I let down my guard long enough to enjoy Murder on the Orient Express…in both of its incarnations.