When looking up Murder on the Orient Express (2017), I may have made a mistake. I had already seen this cinematic version of Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery novel. Therefore, I wanted to view the original from 1974, starring Albert Finney as the lead character, the famous fictional detective Hercule Poirot. However, when I entered the title into Amazon, the earlier iteration came up as part of a series with Finney reprising the lead role. I only have the faintest of knowledge about Finney’s portrayal of Poirot, but it made me think that it is part of a made for television series. The Legionnaire is focused on cinema. However, I believe I might have been mistaken in my assumption. Put differently, I did not do the Belgian gumshoe proud with my internet sleuthing. As such, please feel free to specifically suggest the original some time, but for now you get the modern retelling.
This practicing Catholic loves the opening of Murder on the Orient Express, being in Jerusalem in 1934. Three religious figures, a rabbi (Elliot Levey), a priest (David Annen), and an imam (Joseph Long), are brought before the Wailing Wall (all that remains of the Temple of Jesus’ day), accused of having stolen a precious religious artifact. Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), the famous detective mentioned above, is on the case, having finally gotten the correct eggs for his breakfast. It is an attention to detail that makes him so renowned. After arriving on the scene, he makes quick work of the situation, revealing that it is actually the British Chief Police Inspector (Michael Rouse) who is the actual thief. With yet another mystery successfully solved, Hercule books passage to Istanbul, where he hopes to travel onward to London and take a break from his work. In the former capital of the Byzantine Empire, he encounters an old friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman), who now runs the well-known luxury train line, the Orient Express. Bouc insists that Hercule be given a berth in one of the cars, though there is more afoot with this perspective running than usual. Up until this point, we have already met a few of the other passengers who will also be traveling on the line, particularly Ms. Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.). Hercule can tell there is something between them, but he dismisses it as not his problem. Once on the train, we get to meet the rest of the principal characters, but I will not cover them all. Of interest at this point, though, is Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an apparently shady art dealer. He is receiving death threats and attempts to hire the easily recognized Hercule to watch out for him. Because of the kind of businessman Ratchett is, Hercule refuses. Unfortunately for Ratchett, he is murdered later that night. Coincidentally, the train has been derailed due to an avalanche. With nowhere to go, a suspicious death to solve, and the line’s reputation at stake, Bouc turns to Hercule to unravel the puzzle. He then goes about systematically interviewing each one of the other passengers and conductors. It is not a big train, so there are fewer to get through. Either way, no one is who they say they are, really. While examining Ratchett’s documents, Hercule discovers that the deceased has a false identity as well. In reality, he is Lanfranco Cassetti, the man responsible for the death of little Daisy, the daughter of the famous aviator Colonel John Armstrong (Phil Dunster). No one was able to actually pin the kidnapping and murder on Cassetti, though Hercule had followed the case and had his suspicions. So, too, did everyone around Daisy. With all the clues pointing to not one culprit, but several, Hercule begins connecting each one of his fellow travelers to the Armstrong family. Everyone on the train, except for Hercule, of course, had a role to play in the death, and each took a turn stabbing Ratchett in the middle of the night. When Hercule presents them with his theories, it is Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeifer) who attempts to take the blame for everyone. Caroline is actually Linda Arden, Daisy’s mother, and the mastermind behind the plot to kill Ratchett. She seeks to take the fall because Hercule has a reputation for strict honesty. Yet, he can admit to a few things. First, there was an enormous miscarriage of justice in Daisy’s case, and justice is equally important to him. Secondly, the loss of Daisy took an enormous toll on all those involved, and while he does not condone, he does sympathize. Hence, with all revealed, Hercule agrees to keep his silence with the idea that everything has been put to rest. With the train back up and running, Hercule gets off at the next stop, and is immediately summoned to Egypt where there has been a death on the Nile. That is where the film concludes.
The first time I saw Murder on the Orient Express, I thought it was okay. My opinion has not changed with a second viewing. When it comes to stories about famous detectives, give me the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Sherlock series every day of the week, and twice on Sundays. I would review those if they were not technically a television show, although it is tempting as each episode is the length of a feature film. The comparisons between the two primary characters, Hercule and Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), are apt. Both are insufferable in their own ways. Sherlock is a know-it-all. Hercule is fastidious. Both have sizable egos. It is in this last regard that Hercule stands out, and why I opt for Sherlock. While I will say Hercule is gentler and kinder, he has an air of taken for granted privilege that I want to call noblesse oblige, but the behavior lacks the “oblige.” Personally, I do not care for his cavalier attitude toward God. At one point who says of himself that there are only two people who can tell with certainty when someone is lying: God and Hercule Poirot. One might say that at least he is admitting to the existence of God. Perhaps, but to me he is also elevating himself to that status. I prefer a bit of humbleness, which you can rightly claim that Sherlock usually lacks. Doyle’s character also has some pretty awful things to say about God in the BBC series. However, Sherlock has more of an earned nobility to him that I do not get from Hercule. God lifts up the lowly, particularly when they are at their lowest. If you watch the Sherlock episodes, you will see him nearly lose everything, partially due to his own arrogance but also because of circumstances, and they clearly have an effect on him. With Hercule, he simply happens to be a passenger on a train. He takes pity on their plight, to be sure, but he has no other connection with any of the events. In short, Sherlock seems more human, one of God’s creations like the rest of us.
Hopefully my comparison between Sherlock and the main character in Murder on the Orient Express is not too esoteric. If somebody wants to submit the 1974 version to be reviewed, I will happily take a look at it. As for this one, it is okay. There is nothing objectionable, or special about it. I suppose train enthusiasts might find a little more enjoyment with it. It is fun to ride on trains. At any rate, the film is not quite as clever as I might have liked, but a solid one nonetheless.