David Suchet played Agatha Christie’s legendary detective Hercule Poirot for nearly 25 years, a length of time that is extraordinary for an actor’s portrayal of a character.
It’s not the actor’s only role, but for many, it’s his career-defining role. When the 2017 remake “Murder on Orient Express” was announced, with Kenneth Branagh starring as the famed detective, there were those who spoke out, claiming Suchet should have been in the role. Think #notmypresident, but less emotionally charged.
Poirot’s time on screen dates back to 1931, when Austin Trevor first portrayed the detective. Since then, multiple actors have played the role, but none are so celebrated as Suchet. (My own familiarity with the character comes from playing “Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders” on a console.)
I count myself fortunate that I never saw Suchet play Poirot, but I plan to rectify that. I also never read “Murder on the Orient Express,” and I plan on changing that fact, as well.
Poirot books sit in my library at home, and I think it’s time I took the Belgian for a spin. But, I’m fortunate that I went into the 2017 film with no opportunities for comparison. It’s often hard to view a film or actor’s portrayal with no bias toward pre-existing media. When roles have been recast over and over, it’s hard not to have a favorite. It’s also difficult when a beloved book is brought to the screen, making it difficult not to pick out and loathe each and every change. For me, Branagh’s take on Poirot is as on point as the tips of his magnificent mustache.
For those few who don’t know, “Murder on the Orient Express” is based on the 1934 Christie novel. It is one of Christie’s most famous works, and Poirot is definitely her most treasured and famous creation. Both are celebrated and lovingly treasured in the film. The new film also captures much of the glitz and glamour of that time period.
In the film, Poirot must travel home on the Orient Express and quickly makes acquaintances of some of his fellow passengers on the crowded train, including that of Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a gangster in need of a detective. Poirot refuses, and Ratchett is quickly dispatched by someone on board. Everyone is a suspect, but who is capable of murder?
This isn’t the first time “Murder” has been brought to the big or small screen, and just like its predecessors, the film is packed with star power. Michelle Pfeiffer is a widow, Penelope Cruz a missionary, Willem DaFoe a professor, Dame Judi Dench a princess with Olivia Colman as her maid, Josh Gad the victim’s assistant, Derek Jacobi the victim’s valet, Leslie Odom Jr. a doctor and “Star Wars” fan favorite Daisy Ridley a governess. There’s also a count and his countess, played by Sergio Polunin and Lucy Boynton. Each person has a past and secrets that Poirot must uncover.
Branagh is a talented actor and aside from some missteps — “Wild, Wild West” anyone? — his roles are always strong. He put on the director’s cap for “Murder on the Orient Express” as well. It can be hard to pull double duty as director and lead, but Branagh has done it before, and he succeeds beautifully this time, too.
From our first moments with Poirot, we’re caught up in his eccentricities as well as his brilliance. He’s a man that demands order in his world and in life. We watch him turn away his breakfast because the eggs aren’t the same size. He steps in horse poo with one foot and must step in it a second time with his other to maintain balance. He’s odd, peculiar even, but it’s absolutely delightful to watch him at work.
“Murder on the Orient Express” isn’t action-packed. It’s not a heart-stopping thriller. It’s a bit of a slow burn that becomes hotter and more fiery as the film speeds toward its dramatic conclusion like a runaway locomotive. Branagh and his team appear to capture the elegance of Christie’s original work and take it to the next level.
When the details of Ratchett’s murder are disclosed, it’s a crazy, powerful moment. The backstory is highly emotional, and watching Branagh’s Poirot break as he’s faced with an impossible decision hits you right in the gut. His perfectly balanced world is shattered, and there’s no way to restore balance.
Poirot is brilliant, his little gray cells working overtime in each moment of his day. But, we glimpse his vulnerability through monologues as he looks at a photo of his lost love, Katherine. And there are multiple camera angles that conveys the idea that his world has fractured, such as when shots are shown through the windows of the train, the glass segmenting the actor’s face.
It’s not a perfect film, though. The characters feel too flippant initially as we’re introduced to them. Ridley’s governess feels a little out of place, when you think about the fact the actress is only 25 years old but supposedly has years of experience. Tom Bateman’s Bouc, who is the director of the train, feels a little forced and over the top when we first meet him. It almost feels like each of the actors is trying too hard to play their part. But, somewhere along the line, things just fall into a kind of rhythm. Perhaps, I just lost myself in the story and stopped worrying about the things that seemed slightly off.
Regardless, the film left me pleasantly surprised. My boyfriend and I discussed much of what is in this review, in addition to the cast and crew’s ability to craft a humanist murder mystery that depicts the corruption of our souls and the costs of violence for both those who dispense it and receive it. That’s worth a lot to me, because so much media is almost instantly forgettable, failing to be more than a diversion or elicit more than a half-hearted joy. I’d gladly take this ride again, and I’d encourage you all to consider the same voyage.