Not being an Agatha Christie aficionado, and having missed previous screen adaptations including the much-lauded 1974 movie starring Albert Finney, the plot of her 1934 whodunit was, like the identity of the killer to the moustachioed Belgian detective played by director Kenneth Branagh, originally a stranger to me. Hence why my reaction is probably more favourable than the lukewarm response from those who are familiar with the tale. Though, ironically, it takes for the Orient Express to grind to a halt in a snowslide for the pace to pick up.
A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk up to the Wailing Wall. No, not the start of a risque end-of-the-pier joke by Bernard Manning, but the opening to the screenplay by Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant) which culminates in Hercules Poirot clearing all three for a crime they did not commit and pinning the blame on a corrupt chief inspector. “I can only see the world as it should be,” he concludes, before embarking on a much-needed holiday to “look at paintings” and “have too much time” on his hands.
That is until an officer interrupts his departure with an urgent case and directs him on the first train to London. Though not before offending the self-proclaimed “greatest detective in the world” by mispronouncing his first name to rhyme with squeeze rather than skew. “I do not slay the lions,” he snorts. Then turns on a sixpence, twitches his walrus moustache and twirls his walking stick in the direction of the unusually crowded train.
On board he meets a who’s who of acting luminaries including Judi Dench as the glum-faced Princess Dragomiroff, Michelle Pfeiffer as the “husband-hunting” Caroline Hubbard and Johnny Depp as the amateur antiques dealer Edward Ratchett. One of whom fails to arrive at their destination and falls “like Lucifer” after being repeatedly stabbed by a long straight-edged knife between the hours of midnight and two. Step forward the “avenger of the innocent” who uses his legendary powers of deduction to separate the red herrings from the cold hard facts and “detect not protect” the criminal.
The start, as I said, is slow. Switching too often and too fleetingly from character introductions to landscape long shots, impressive as they are by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Eye In The Sky, Locke). Though some of the verbal exchanges pepper the bullseye, such as this delightful flirtation between the hard-to-get Pfeiffer and the hardening Depp. “Well hello,” grins the latter as he blocks the former’s path in a narrow corridor. “Eyes linger any longer and I’ll have to charge rent,” she teases him. To which he responds. “I’ll pay.”
As Poirot’s one-to-one interrogations draw blood from stone-faced liars, the pace quickens and the sense of anticipation heightens as he closes in on the truth which challenges his deeply held belief that: there is right and there is wrong, but there is no in between. Which is a fitting description of how most people will view this film. Thankfully, for me, a sequel beckons, for as the camera pans out to reveal a glorious closing shot of the train heading into the sunset and Poirot driving off in the opposite direction, reference is made to another case involving a death on the Nile.
Video courtesy of: 20th Century Fox