Why yet another remake of Agatha Christie’s classic Murder on the Orient Express? I was surprised to realize that the only prior screen adaptation was Sidney Lumet’s magnificent 1974 film
An abbreviated cast listing to Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express reads Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, and Johnny Depp. This list boasts two Oscar winners, four Oscar nominees and two British knights. Sir Kenneth has received Oscar nominations as actor, supporting actor, director and screenwriter. Sir Derek holds knighthoods from two countries – England and Denmark. All in all it is an accomplished crew.
Lumet’s film also featured a stellar cast, superb acting (including Ingrid Bergman’s third Oscar), direction, writing, cinematography, costume design and film score. Sidney Lumet was the director who gave us Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network.
There have been two TV versions of the story: in 2010, a BBC production with David Suchet as Poirot which suffered from the compressed episodic TV timing and in 2001 an American version with Alfred Molina as the Belgian detective which was painfully modernized. I think David Suchet’s portrayal is likely the best as he has spent so many years perfecting it (1989-2013). Only Jeremy Brett in the BBC productions of the Sherlock Holmes stories has shown such dedication to a character. Peter Ustinov also portrayed Poirot twice on film in Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.
Ustinov was purportedly the 10th actor to portray Poirot – besides the two films he also appeared in four TV dramatizations of Poirot stories.
The 1974 film was a landmark so I remain puzzled as to why Branagh has taken on this project. It is not a story that requires a lot of modern cinematic effects. I can only surmise that he is attracted to the character of Poirot and the opportunity to direct an ensemble cast yet again.He has been most successful in his films of Shakespeare plays all of which included ensemble casts. He also filmed Dead Again (1991) a crime thriller, with Emma Thompsom and Derek Jacobi- so he has ventured into the mystery genre before. He also updated Joseph Mankiewicz’ classic Sleuth (1972) not altogether successfully. Even though he incorporated Michael Caine in the other protagonist’s role and had the services of a literary screenwriter (Harold Pinter) re-working Anthony Shaffer’s play, it just didn’t come off. Most recently he appeared in a modest part in Christopher Nolan’s innovative film Dunkirk which suggests he doesn’t always have to be behind the camera.
Something has to be said about his embellishment of Poirot’s appearance by way of his trademark moustache. I shall defer to this article on the subject which just appeared last night.
Now we have him delving into the 1970’s again for the present film’s inspiration…he has a magnificent cast…he has retained his cinematographer (Haris Zambarloukos) from four previous films… screenwriter Michael Green had two other big assignments this year – Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant… and just under two hours running time which should be sufficient for Dame Agatha’s intricate plot to unfold…so it looks promising.