There is, in theory, nothing wrong with creative liberty in the act of adapting a novel into a film. The two are, after all, different media, and interacting with the information presented by each medium is an acutely different experience. Altering the way information is presented to the audience is often crucial: In writing, for example, expository dialogue can be one's sharpest tool within a work of murder mystery, while on film, relying upon such dialogue can feel disjointed. Being told what is happening while one sees it is awkward. This is not the problem with Michael Green's screenplay for Murder on the Orient Express.
I only bring up the example of expository dialogue being a potentially problematic area for this film, the latest adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel of the same, as a way then to assure prospective audiences that Green at least doesn't shape the dialogue that often explicates and explores the case dropped into the lap of Hercule Poirot (director Kenneth Branagh), the greatest detective of an age within this world, to be awkwardly expository. A murder has happened, Poirot investigates it within the confines of the train of the title, and his solution is stated to those trapped on the train, one of whom or more may be the culprit.
In theory, then, everything here is the same as it was in the novel (and in Sidney Lumet's great adaptation of it, released in 1974). Shortly following the kidnapping and murder of a small child that shook the world with its grisly details and tragic outcome, Poirot (who, in the prologue, solves the disappearance of a holy relic in Jerusalem as only he can - with a meticulousness and more than a little bit of ego) finds himself on a train with a dozen others. Approached by Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an amateur art dealer in trouble with Italian gangsters, for the job of a protective agent, Poirot declines. Hours later, the dealer is dead, stabbed many times in his tiny compartment, with "a riot of clues" practically lying next to the corpse.
Branagh's approach to the material is to focus on the personalities that surround his Poirot, and the performances are quite good, such as his own in bringing to life the detective's moral clarity and Depp's brief appearance despite being given too much screen time and dialogue. Josh Gad plays MacQueen, Ratchett's secretary, whose vice is the drink he keeps on him at all times. Michelle Pfeiffer is Mrs. Hubbard, brought here by her many divorces and certain that she felt a man in her compartment. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley are Dr. Arbuthnot and Ms. Dabenham, a secretive interracial couple trying to pursue the quiet life, and Willem Dafoe plays an Austrian professor vocal in his prejudicial thinking about their pairing.
Judi Dench and Olivia Colman as a princess and her helper, Penelope Cruz as a penitent missionary, Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton as the Count Adrenyi and his Countess - the cast, as in Lumet's version, is deep, not all of them mentioned here. The production is impressive, too, with Branagh leading a team of artists, such as cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (who utilizes clever God's-eye angles at specific times and conceals visual clues at others) and production and costume designers, to create a compelling vision of the title train. Everything would seem to be in order here, except that Green and Branagh deviate exactly where it counts.
This is where the theoretical and practical applications of creative liberty come to an impasse. The special kind of delight of reading a Christie novel is the meticulousness with which the author specifically designed each tiny element of the screenplay so that none of the characters acted without a motivation that was, at least to the author herself, clear and concise. Poirot, being a man of cunning intelligence, only revealed what he knew after he had determined beyond doubt that every avenue had been explored. The tiniest detail was important to him, even the fact of unimportance in some of the other details. He was not theatrical, and he was not quick to anger. Clever and quick in his wit, the man was like stone.
This is not the Poirot that once was, and the degree to which he is not exceeds mere creative liberty to the point of betraying the essence of the great detective. Branagh might be solid in the role, but on the page, this is a quirk of an oddball who, at one point, brandishes a gun (Despite his past as a policeman, this is quite out of character) and, at another, becomes an unexpected action star during one of the film's few, egregious escapades outside the train (which is hobbled by an avalanche). This extends to the plot itself, which has the detective reveal to too many people too much information before he would conceivably do so, through lazily expository dialogue. Murder on the Orient Express is a sometimes-serviceable whodunit. Agatha Christie, though, it is not.
Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard), Daisy Ridley (Mary Debenham), Josh Gad (Hector MacQueen), Tom Bateman (Bouc), Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot), Penelope Cruz (Pilar Estravados), Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff), Willem Dafoe (Gerhard Hardman), Derek Jacobi (Edward Henry Masterman), Lucy Boynton (Countess Elena Adrenyi), Sergei Polunin (Count Rudolph Adrenyi), Marwan Kenzari (Pierre Michel), Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Biniamino Marquez), Johnny Depp (Edward Ratchett).
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie.
Rated PG-13 (violence, thematic elements).
Released on November 10, 2017.