Murder On the Orient Express

Branagh’s magnificent mustache

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

When the biggest difference between the new version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and its 43-year-old predecessor is arguably the size of the respective Hercule Poirot’s moustaches, one has to wonder as to the pressing need for a remake. All the same, director-star Kenneth Branagh has delivered a version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 murder-on-a-train mystery gem that may not be as starry but is snappier than the highly successful 1974 outing. Given the confined nature of the material as well as its period-specific aspects, this is a yarn that does not exactly invite radical reinterpretation. As such, its appeal is confined to the traditional niceties of being a clever tale well told, with colorful characters that are fun to watch being made to squirm by the inimitable Belgian detective.

Now as then, the roster of luminaries brought aboard for Sidney Lumet’s uncharacteristically lush entertainment looks pretty astounding, beginning with Albert Finney as Poirot and also including Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York, and Wendy Hiller. Nonetheless, seen today, the film definitely takes its own sweet time with things, and the fact that Bergman won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in a relatively drab role is utterly confounding; there’s nothing special about either the part or performance.

So perhaps it’s no coincidence that refashioning that role, by casting Penelope Cruz, is among the relatively small number of alterations screenwriter Michael Green has made in reconceiving this new edition. The other notable change lies in the introduction of a black character, Dr. Arbuthnot, played by Leslie Odom Jr., as a substitute for Connery’s army colonel. Neither reconfiguration makes much difference in the bigger scheme of things.

Indeed, the most immediately noticeable distinction between the two versions is the size and design of the inspector’s moustaches. While Finney’s growth was a modest, wee thing, Branagh’s brush provokes one-of-a-kind fascination. The salt-and-pepper tendril sweeps back from above his thin upper lip at least halfway to his ears, while a dabble on the middle of his chin adds an exclamation point. The creation is immaculately tended to, particularly at night, when it’s carefully protected by a special moustache mask, certainly the most important item in the impeccably attired investigator’s suitcase.

Christie’s yarn retains its ability to tease and amuse in a time-killing sort of way. As the remainder of the tale will essentially be confined to narrow railway cars, Branagh packs all the hustle and bustle he can into the first 20 minutes, which sweep through scenic parts of old Istanbul on its way to getting the characters aboard the Simplon-Orient Express back to Europe in the evening.

Naturally, the passengers on this last word in luxury trains are affluent and dressed accordingly, but that doesn’t make them classy; rather, they are a largely louche and suspicious bunch, deliberately endowed by their creator to harbor ulterior motives and possibly sinister designs. They are also outfitted with labels as well as names: Cruz is “the Missionary”; Willem Dafoe plays “the Professor,” who voices pro-Nazi sympathies; Michelle Pfeiffer (in Bacall’s former role) essays “the Widow”; Daisy Ridley (taking the baton from Redgrave) becomes “the Governess”; Judi Dench (stepping in for Hiller) is in her element as the imperious Princess Dragomiroff; and Olivia Colman is “the Maid” for the latter (Rachel Roberts in the original).

But dominating the early-going is “the Gangster,” a swaggering tough guy with an accent to match played by Johnny Depp (Widmark embodied a more low-key version in the original); Josh Gad plays his assistant (following in Perkins’ footsteps). The Gangster’s motives, and his interactions with Poirot, become more complex than initially seems apparent, but what the fellow passengers all seem to share is some sort of acquaintance with a prominent American family whose child was kidnapped and ultimately found dead, a plot point lifted by Christie from the ghastly abduction of Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s baby in 1932.

Christie’s plot officially becomes a murder mystery when one of the main characters is killed in his compartment overnight; most of the remainder consists of a now-aroused Poirot interviewing the key figures on board the snowdrift-stalled train and applying his extraordinary deductive skills to figuring out who among the passengers did the deed.

In his direction, but even more so in his performance as the determined genius investigator, Branagh is energetic to the point of passionate fanaticism. For a good long while, the blunt-spoken, sometimes rude Belgian is flummoxed by a case that’s unique in his experience, his frustration driving him to distraction. But his penetrating intelligence can never be denied for long, and Branagh the director has come up with a novel, if far-fetched, way of transferring his climactic revelation scene—where he spins his conclusions to the whole group—out of the train to a more scenic location.

Branagh’s Poirot is fearless, penetrating and amusing in his relentlessness; in the end, it’s pretty much a toss-up between Branagh and Finney as to who is more effective, although you could say Branagh’s moustache alone gives him the edge by more than a hair.

Btown Valentines
More Film...
Phantom Thread
A well-spun tale

The delectable peculiarities of Phantom Thread come from all over, from countless inspirations. Some are cinematic: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Gothic standard Rebecca, for one, and David Lean’s little-known and fascinating 1949 romantic triangle The Passionate Friends, for another.


more »
The Post
The pen vs. the sword

As it is with The Post, so it is with many Steven Spielberg movies. We sit there, a little interested, a little bit detached, thinking, well, this is OK, nothing special, but perfectly fine. And then—who knows how he does it?—the camera moves in on a face, the soundtrack swells, and…

more »
Darkest Hour
Never surrender

Winston Churchill lived a life that was long and “not…entirely uneventful,” as he once put it, and so it’s only fitting that he should be the subject of movies. Hence, across the veil of years, we have seen tall Churchills, obese Churchills, sloppy Churchills, gross Churchills, and…

more »
Cascade Games Convention

9:00am|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Wild Things

9:30am|Lake Padden Park

Garage Sale and Health Fair

12:00pm|Settlemyer Hall

Books and Bites

2:00pm|Blaine Library

Post-Holiday Detox

2:00pm|Cordata Community Food Co-op

Coffee Tasting

3:00pm|Camber Cafe

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Bellingham Folk Festival

4:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Art Auction Gala

5:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Anacortes Women's March

6:00pm|Depot Arts Center

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Sierra Club Winter Member Party

6:30pm|Boundary Bay Brewery


7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Opera Scenes

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

The Flick

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Tropical Heat Wave Dance


Space Trek, Backyard Brawl

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Five for Fighting

8:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Cascade Games Convention

9:00am|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Garage Sale and Health Fair

12:00pm|Settlemyer Hall

Bellingham Folk Festival

4:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship


7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

The Flick

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Space Trek, Backyard Brawl

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

VFW Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Hall

Smoking Crow Opening

9:00am|Smoking Crow

Mason Bee Management

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Nordic Ski Ambassadors

10:00am|SnoPark at Salmon Ridge

Plant Society Field Trip

10:00am|Birch Bay State Park

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Howard Miller Steelhead Park

March on Bellingham

10:00am|Bellingham City Hall

Winter Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Of marching and mending


Travel to Cuzco and Machu PIcchu

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Mysticism in Art

2:00pm|Skagit County Historical Museum

Mona Openings

2:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Cedar Weaving Workshop

2:00pm|Lynden Library

Teddy Bear Biographies

2:00pm|Ferndale Library

Exploring Port

2:00pm|Seifert & Jones Wine Merchants

Learn to Grow a Vegetable Garden

2:00pm|Sumas Library

The Fight Against Human Trafficking

3:00pm|Everson Library

Kindgom Quest

4:00pm|Village Books

Music and Memories

5:00pm|Swinomish Casino & Lodge

Robert Burns Supper

5:30pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Ensemble Electra

7:30pm|Jansen Art Center

The Good Lovelies

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Village Books
Cascade Games Convention

9:00am|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Bellingham Folk Festival

4:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship


7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Howard Miller Steelhead Park

Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Rabbit Ride

8:30am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Bellingham Chamber Music Society

3:00pm|First Congregational Church

Nonfiction and Memoir Writing Group

3:00pm|Village Books

Southside Community Meal

5:00pm|Our Saviour's Lutheran Church

Way North Comedy

7:00pm|Farmstrong Brewing Co.

see our complete calendar »

FiveFor Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1