Set aside the story you remember and buckle up. Kenneth Branagh is about to turn Murder on the Orient Express into a thrilling cinematic experience.
The upcoming big-screen version (directed by Branagh, who also leads the ensemble cast as Hercule Poirot) is as far from an old-fashioned drawing room mystery as they come. Agatha Christie’s iconic mystery is now a sweeping, stylish international thriller; more exciting spectacle than cosy armchair entertainment.
The setup will already be familiar to many: 13 strangers are stuck together aboard a stranded luxury train in the frozen Eastern European mountains. Private detective Poirot must identify the killer before he or she strikes again.
Unlike previous, more literal adaptations, this is a cinematic experience first and foremost. Branagh says he and screenwriter Michael Green wanted to show the “childlike sense of excitement” that comes from “being able to cross Europe in this wheeled palace, with its confined spaces that also make you think certain things could go bump in the night”.
“In the Orient Express, you also have glamour. You have snow. You have elegance and the golden age of romance in travel. And, of course, you have a murder.”
Watch the trailer below:
For those of us who already know “whodunit”, the film offers some genuine surprises as a “whydunit” and “howdunit” – a deeper look into the personalities and backstories of Christie’s eccentric characters to see what makes them tick.
“There was a compassion in the screenplay,” says Branagh, “and one of the things that surprised and thrilled me about the film is that it’s much more an emotional experience than people might imagine.”
“This goes deeper because it explores grief, and loss, and revenge, with sophistication and soul.”
This character-driven approach is made all the more appealing by an ensemble cast – one of the most impressive in recent memory – featuring veteran A-list performers such as Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Penelope Cruz.
Judi Dench, a huge favourite among the Starts at 60 community, gets a particularly strong chance to sparkle as the arrogant, superior Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, who is forced to endure first-class carriage service she feels is somehow beneath her.
Branagh believes Dame Judi had “a whale of a time” playing the contemptuous monarch, for whom the world was “never as she liked it”.
“Never quick enough. Never soon enough. Never hot enough. Never nice enough. And when she wasn’t complaining about what wasn’t right, she was demanding that her dogs be looked after. It allows for a chance to see a character who is very stern, and very forbidding, to also be naughty and funny. “
“Judi Dench is somebody who can play all of those things with great delight,” says Branagh. “At the same time as formidable as she is funny, she can also be very secret and hidden.”
Even Poirot, a thoroughly familiar character to many, gets to show some new depths.
“Poirot can be seen as a comedic character,” says Green, “but in very serious circumstances, and part of our approach was to show that contrast.”
“Poirot is used to being ahead of the game, in control of the situation, and in this story, he meets a case that is beyond his understanding at that time.”
“He’s also an incredibly fun man to frustrate, because he is so perfect and particular, that when he is off balance, he becomes incredibly interesting. That’s what ignites him and sets him off.”
To make things even more difficult for the eccentric detective, the filmmakers had some extra fun upping the scale and tension. While the original novel largely confines the action to a snowbound train, this version has the Orient Express stranded precariously on a creaky mountain bridge.
“[It’s] the last place you’d want to be stuck for any length of time,” says Green, “because at any given moment you’re hearing the creaks and groans of ancient wood… plus it completely removes the possibility of escape.”
Branagh believes the ensemble cast performs tremendously under these heightened stakes.
“If you like a real mystery, it’s a gripping yarn. It happens in this case to be peopled by a lot of terrific actors who, I think, intensify that mystery.”
“It’s unsettling. It’s entertaining. It’s surprising. And, if you like a murder mystery with heart and passion and soul, I think it’s worth a look.”
Murder on the Orient Express is in cinemas November 9.