I didn’t watch Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 remake of Murder on the Orient Express, for two main reasons. One, the original 1974 adaptation by Sidney Lumet is, to me, one of the greatest mystery films ever made, and Albert Finney’s performance as Hercule Poirot was absolutely flawless. Two, while I am a fan of Branagh’s, the November release screamed that the movie was trying to campaign for Oscars, and I have no qualms about admitting my bias against vanity projects – particularly remakes – shilling for unearned prestige. As such, the movie did not get past my personal “Remake Rule.” I told myself I’d watch it if it got a nomination, but thankfully it didn’t, and I was spared. From what I hear, it was alright. My mom certainly liked it, but on the whole it was nothing special.
Still, the movie made enough money to get a sequel greenlit, with Branagh now setting his sights on Death on the Nile. And this time, I did have a compelling enough reason to give it a look. I had a date. A lady of the female persuasion wanting to spend time with me will override a LOT of red flags I might have about the overall product. My companion is a fan of Agatha Christie’s work, so she invited me to see the film with her, and I did not hesitate.
Now, it should be noted here that while I have read some of Christie’s books (“And Then There Were None” is my favorite), I have not read this one, nor have I seen the previous film from 1978. So for story purposes, I was going in fresh. And even if I had read it, I’m okay with creative license in an adaptation so long as it doesn’t denigrate its inspiration. Source material is important, but as long as I can understand what’s going on without an intimate knowledge of the books, then I try to leave them out of the equation as much as possible. I don’t always succeed on that front, but I do try. Unless the plot becomes so bastardized that the real killer ends up being “the patriarchy” or some other form of virtue signaling that wouldn’t have been possible in Christie’s age, I’ll leave it be because I literally don’t know any better.
So, bearing that in mind, how was the movie? It was fine. The central murder mystery is relatively well-paced and plotted, the performances are fun, the characters are for the most part intriguing, and the script has some great one-liners. It’s what a pure popcorn flick should be, entertaining but inessential, which makes it much more appropriate for a February release than later in the year to attempt to compete in Awards Season. There are some very questionable choices in the presentation, but on the whole it was rather enjoyable.
For those unfamiliar with the story, celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, having an absolute blast with the role) is invited to the wedding party of Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and his new bride, Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), a wealthy heiress, in Egypt. Poirot gets to tag along because the couple is being stalked by Simon’s ex, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey from Sex Education), to whom Simon was engaged before meeting Linette, and who was until that jilting Linette’s good friend. Fearing not only Jackie’s wrath, but potential reprisals from any number of people in the wedding party – all of whom have some financial interest in Linette’s affairs – Poirot is hired to join them on an impromptu cruise along the Nile River. In the dead of night, one of the group is murdered, and an expensive piece of jewelry is stolen. It then falls to Poirot to solve the case, unraveling several minor mysteries along the way, before the body count piles too high.
Our potential rogues gallery also includes Poirot’s friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, returning from the last movie) and his mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), blues singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece/manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright), Linette’s maid Louise (Rose Leslie), her cousin and lawyer Andrew (Ali Fazal), her former lover Dr. Linus Windlesham (an almost unrecognizable Russell Brand), her godmother/former socialite-turned-communist Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), and Ms. Van Schuyler’s nurse and companion Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French). It’s an amazing cast, and the fact that we get a French and Saunders reunion already has my seal of approval.
While it doesn’t factor in for me, this is where much of the changes from the original book are made. Several characters are omitted and/or replaced here, particularly Bouc (who is not in the novel, apparently), standing in for the character Tim Allerton. Similarly, Salome is changed from a romance novelist to a singer, with Rosalie being a niece instead of a daughter, Andrew is now a cousin, and Van Schuyler is a godmother. This is done to ensure that all of the potential suspects have some deep personal connection to the newlyweds, thereby attempting to give more dramatic weight to the inciting murder and each subsequent killing. Again, this had no real relevance for me, but it’s worth knowing if such alterations will affect your ability to engage with the content.
The actual whodunit is laid out rather well, and coming in without prior knowledge, it was fun to play along and try to figure out the resolution before the survivors are lined up in the proverbial parlor for the reveal. Sadly, this is one of the potential fatal flaws of the film, and it comes from more of a structural perspective than a plot one. I’ve seen a lot of movies over the years, and through that lifelong love affair and study, I’ve learned to watch things through a critical lens and key in on certain elements of visual storytelling. And thanks to the ones put on display in this particular film, I was able to figure out the guilty party even before the first body hit the floor. Ironically, the trailer was edited in a way that obfuscated the result far better than the final product. A stark imbalance between screen time for certain characters and the casual manner in which their backstories are exposited went a long way in very quick fashion to eliminating suspects. Thankfully, since there are several deaths on this river, even with the main murder solved I could still have fun working out the minor bits and honing in on the next potential victim, salvaging the overall experience.
There are other odd faults here and there that are worth noting as generally questionable decisions. Simon and Jackie are introduced via a dance routine that is one step up from PG-13 pornography, which doesn’t quite match the tone of the rest of the movie. As much as I love Gal Gadot, her accent just does not fit with anything else going on in the film, and it’s very likely Ali Fazal was cast (and Andrew’s last name changed from “Pennington” to “Katchadourian”) to accommodate a necessary ethnic shift to make a familial relationship even remotely believable. The CGI landscapes and scenery aren’t very convincing, and for some ungodly reason Branagh decided that what the film was missing was animal-based jump scares, like a snake lunging at Linette or a crocodile picking a bird off a rock in the river to eat it. I’m guessing it was meant to be foreshadowing, but it just came off cheesy.
Similarly goofy is the makeup job on Branagh himself. The film opens with a scene during World War I, where a younger Poirot uses his skills of observation to devise an attack strategy that results in success for his unit rather than decimation, but it comes at the cost of his commanding officer’s life and a severe injury to his face. His then-girlfriend Katherine (Susannah Fielding; she’s literally only in this sequence to provide pathos and melancholy in relation to Poirot’s lack of a love life) visits him in hospital and suggests he grow a mustache to hide his eventual scarring, which I guess is meant to explain the silly ‘stache that is the character’s trademark. But the part that makes no sense is the fact that half of Poirot’s face gets blasted off in an explosion. When he turns his head for a dramatic reveal, I thought more of Harvey Dent than Hercule Poirot. It is ghastly. And yet, he has no scarring on his cheek or really any part of the right side of his face. A mustache isn’t covering up what happened to him. Could the makeup team not be bothered to just paint on a scar? It honestly took me out of the movie several times. Even weirder, they try to buy it back at the end by showing him without the mustache, including a cheek scar. But the thing is, his facial hair couldn’t possibly have obscured it given earlier shots, it was nowhere to be seen during the rest of the movie, and it was still not nearly enough to account for his gruesome injury.
Still, I had fun, and that’s what’s most important. And you can tell watching the film that the cast – especially Branagh and Hammer – had a lot of fun making it. Branagh has ambitions to make an entire Poirot Cinematic Universe, and honestly, if he keeps it this light (despite the deadly games at play) and can fix the character focus issues to make the mystery just a bit harder to solve, I could be on board with more of these films as a nice, recurring distraction.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of Agatha Christie’s work? Do you think you could outsmart Poirot and get away with murder? Let me know!