(This review is spoiler free. If you have not seen the film or read the book you may still safely proceed.)
|20th Century Fox|
The story's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness--the sheer size of the cast, each character of which matters intensely in the narrative tapestry. The twist hinges on the numbers, which means that a faithful adaptation cannot eliminate anyone from the cast, even though they can make changes to character specifics. The easiest way to solve the problem is also the most delightful--and the most lucrative: cast a name brand actor in every role.
The 1974 version of the film featured names that are still remembered greats today, including Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave and Ingrid Bergman. The 2018 cast is no less stunning, and even if our grandchildren won't recognize every name the way we do, they will still know a decent number (if only because Disney will market their properties to infinity and beyond.) Yet each actor on this list earns their place, imbuing each character with distinction and pathos worthy of remembrance. Michelle Pfeiffer, in particular, delivers a pitch-perfect performance.
Kenneth Branagh's Poirot, although grayer and thinner than typically imagined, is also well done. However Branagh deserves double kudos, as he not only delivers a good Poirot, but also a beautiful film, both visually and emotionally. Nearly every frame of the film looks like a portrait, and every possible angle of the train is utilized to support the narrative in a way that is interesting but not distracting. Without giving away the twist (for those of you who, like my husband, have not yet been spoiled), I will say that the ending lands soberly, leaving one with a great feeling on contemplation and reflection. Like Poirot, we don't feel we can judge, and yet it is an ending one cannot help needing to analyze.
Cultural lens is a phrase I used earlier, and I will say it is clear that this is a film of the present times. The film, like adaptations before it, must set up Poirot's genius for those who are not coming off of Christie's previous novels starring this detective. Michael Green, the screenwriter, chooses to set Poirot's entrance in Jerusalem, 1934, with a crime centered around a priest, a rabbi, and an iman. Poirot solves the puzzle with careful aplomb, and so does the rest of the film weave a diverse cast into the narrative without upsetting the historical accuracy of the period.
For those of you who have read the book, yes, there are a few changes to character backstories in a few places, and a few switches of motivations. Yet, going into this film as someone who knows the story very well, I felt each substitution was faithful to the intent of the original, while serving a more accessible purpose to modern film-goers. And, in a couple of cases, the motivations were actually nicely deepened.
We live in a culture that has put every possible twist on murder shows, setting them against every possible backdrop in every possible drama. While "Murder on the Orient Express" features a fantastic reveal, it nonetheless features an ending that brings us back to the sober truth--Murder is evil, and it ruins every life it touches. Justice may not bring peace, or closure, but it does make the world a safer place.
Whether you know nothing about Agatha Christie, or whether you have every one of her books on your shelf, if you love a good mystery, you need to check out this adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express." And while I'll always encourage you to read the original book, this film is definitely a worthy way to experience the tale.