With 2-billion books sold, she’s behind only the Bible and Shakespeare.
But a quick survey of my inner and outer circles would either show that people in general just don’t read anymore or that pop-culture — in America — has room for Sherlock Holmes but not for Hercule Poirot, Christie’s master sleuth who’s appeared in 33 of her novels and a set of films, cinema and television, the last being 2013’s Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case with David Suchet ending a 24-year turn as the detective for the United Kingdom’s ITV.
Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in Murder on the Orient Express, a movie with a stacked ensemble cast featuring the likes of Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Willem Defoe, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. It could have done no less — watch any crime procedural on television, and you can spot the master criminal just by the guest appearance.
Aboard the Orient Express, private detective Poirot becomes embroiled in a murder-mystery after Samuel Ratchett (Depp), a shady rug dealer, is killed in his sleep. Poirot interrogates the passengers of the first-class car and investigates a plot that will test his own notions and conscience.
One of the movie’s themes is balance, but the film’s first and second halves feel unequally weighted. We — the uninitiated — become familiar with Hercule and his reputation as the world’s greatest detective while characters are brought in, one by one, until the luxury car is packed with an odd assortment of personalities.
When the interrogations begin, the film starts to show its seams when it should be building a stronger case. Scenes play with little transition between them, and Poirot’s investigation runs as a sequence of a series of interviews with deceivers, walls, and meticulously crafted facades that build characterization despite the story and not because of it.
Consequently, none of it matters because Poirot discovers that all of the passengers collectively conspired to kill Ratchett and took turns stabbing him. Together, they concocted an elaborate murder that would have foiled even Poirot if not for a set of coincidences and overheard conversations.
While the acting is great, and the the production value is there — Murder on the Orient Express is a revenge story served frigidly cold, and the lack of urgency and suspense kills the vibe until the final scenes deliver the group’s motive with a passionate crescendo.
It’s a film that may have played better in reverse because the film’s ending is its purpose. The exploration of balance, revenge as social justice, and the domino effect of loss in the backend feels so emotionally heavy compared to the structurally sound but sterile frontend.
If this is the intro for a saga — if Murder on the Orient Express is an extended prologue playing right before the intro credits to a larger movie — count me in. Branagh’s Poirot is intelligent, eccentric, and complicated in all of the right ways.
As a standalone, it’s complimentary fare — a decent ride with an excellent destination.