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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Branagh Tackles Poirot & the Orient Express
by James Colt Harrison

Agatha Christie has been a favorite mystery novelist since the 1930s. Her books have been smash hits around the world and have been translated into many languages. Many of Christie’s stories have been turned into films. But perhaps Christie’s most popular characters have been Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Miss Marple was the popular old lady sleuth in the form of the hilarious British actress Margaret Rutherford. She played Miss Marple as a clever but bumbling amateur detective who managed to solve crimes through intuition and many comedy lines and bits of theatrical business. At MGM Rutherford made four Miss Marple movies during the 1960s. Angela Lansbury later played the Miss Marple character in 1980 in The Mirror Crack’d. But audiences loved Rutherford and laughed the most at her splendid comical performances.

Christie’s male detective was invented as Hercule Poirot, a Belgian, not French, as many have mistaken him as being from France. She began writing about Poirot in 1916 in the novel “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” but did not get it published until 1920. Poirot appeared again in her 1923 book “Murder on the Links.” In1928 she took a trip on the Orient Express train to Baghdad, where she subsequently met her second husband, Max Mallowan, whom she married in 1930. While in Istanbul in 1934, she wrote “Murder on the Orient Express” while staying at the Pera Palace Hotel.

In addition to a very popular television series in the 1980s, Christie’s character of Hercule Poirot appeared in several movies over the years. Tony Randall, Albert Finney, and Peter Ustinov have all portrayed Poirot on the silver screen.

Now director/actor Kenneth Branagh has tackled Murder on the Orient Express for a new Twentieth Century Fox release with a stellar cast of top stars to play the beloved Agatha Christie characters. He’s not only directing, but he’s starring as Poirot, the genius detective. Other actors have tackled the part (Peter Ustinov in movies, David Suchet on TV ) and possibly captured Poirot’s Belgian/ French nature better. Branagh still seems British even though he is feigning a ridiculous fake accent that doesn’t quite ring true. And that moustache! The studio hairstylists have gone a bit overboard as there is enough hair on Branagh’s face to make a winter fur coat, matching hat and mittens. Perhaps that was their intent because much of the movie takes place in the snow.

Screenwriter Michael Green has tinkered a bit with Christie’s characters, mixing them around and changing them to suit his “updated” feel of the story. The characters that we do have are not developed much beyond  superficial faces as deep as tissue paper. The mystery as to “who dunnit” holds, but the entire cast are suspects, and the mystery becomes rather diluted. It’s nice to see Michelle Pfeiffer playing the rather overly-ripe siren Caroline Hubbard, a woman traveling alone. She’s not the kind of woman you would think of as sleeping alone. But then, who is she really?

Let’s talk about the world’s greatest actress: Judi Dench. Poor Ms. Dench has been given the role of the aristocratic Princess Dragomiroff. All she has to do is look grand (which she is), scowl a few times, say her three lines, and look constipated. The Oscar® winner accomplishes all of that with aplomb and makes us love her anyway. Alas, the grand Dench is totally wasted in what amounts to little more than a walk-on part. Shame, shame Mr. Director!

Is the picture any good? Yes, it is, for the most part. We get to see Johnny Depp playing a somewhat bargain basement gangster type. He doesn’t have as much personality as his Jack Sparrow’s sexually ambiguous pirate’s character. But the producers have given the formerly handsome star a scar on his face and a dreadfully sleazy wardrobe that is in keeping with his slimy Edward Ratchett role. Is he any relation to Nurse Ratchett in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Production values are tops, with the magic being done by Jim Clay. The costumes are befitting the 1930s era, and costume designer Alexandra Byrne has outfitted the ladies in splendid gowns and the gentlemen in appropriately stuffy tweeds. All of this sartorial splendor is beautifully captured by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’s inquisitively-eyed camera.

(Released by Twentieth Century Fox and rated “PG-13” for violence and thematic elements.)

NOTE: Agatha Christie died on January 12, 1976. She was 86.

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