A charming but uneven murder mystery

I made the potentially problematic decision, to screen Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” a few days after watching the recent 2017 Kenneth Branagh directed version. Both films are, of course, based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name. Somehow, despite my fascination with both Lumet and Christie, I had managed to avoid both the previous adaptation and the novel. This made me, probably, the only critic in the world who saw Branagh’s version without knowing where it would head. What prompted a new adaptation more than 80 years after the 1934 novel? I am not sure. And, oddly, I’m not too sure that Branagh and company have a particularly solid reason either. Still, every film does not need a grand thesis statement to be worth making. Nonetheless, there seems to be a mild hint of ire among the critical intelligentsia regarding the decision for the new adaptation. On the surface, I understand. Kenneth Branagh, for all his charm, is no Sidney Lumet when it comes to directing. And yet, Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is hardly the film that marks his excellence. This material will never be “Dog Day Afternoon.”

A film like “Murder on the Orient Express” immediately has my interest just for the surface level thrill it promises–an ensemble film. Character studies are great, and oftentimes tend to be ripe for better films, but there is a distinct pleasure in seeing a dozen or more actors thrust together in service of a single plot. It’s the inherent point of any drawing-room murder mystery, and perhaps the only thing that either adaptation is especially notable for. In “Murder on the Orient Express,” a very nasty man has been murdered in his cabin while the train is en route to Calais from Turkey. The train is derailed and there is nowhere to go. Famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, a Christie staple, is on board and reluctantly decides to solve the case of the murdered man. Someone on the train must have murdered him. But who? And why?….

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