What We Know: Murder on the Orient Express


By: Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)

Agatha Christie wrote 66 detective novels from 1920 to 1976. With her stories translated into 45 languages with over 2 billion copies worldwide, Christie is the most widely read novelist in history. Her brilliant stories have been adapted into film 23 times in the U.K. alone, not including television adaptations or other re-tellings of her stories on screen in different countries. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the 1974 film adaptation of her famous 1934 novel “Murder on the Orient Express” will be getting a facelift this November. Keep reading to find out what we know about the upcoming film!

In December 2013, Murder on the Orient Express was announced as a project by 20th Century Fox. Two years later, in June 2015, director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) was brought on to helm the project with a screenplay written by Michael Green (Logan). Casting talks began at the time Branagh came on board and continued into January 2016. Produced by Ridley Scott (Alien), Mark Gordon (Source Code), Simon Kinberg (X-Men), Judy Hofflund, Michael Schaefer (The Martian), and Branagh, Murder on the Orient Express began principal photography at Longcross Studios in Surrey in November 2016, finally wrapping in May 2017.

Murder on the Orient Express has some clout behind the cameras with music by Patrick Doyle (Thor) and cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos (Cinderella). In front of the camera, the film is full of Hollywood talent, and we’ve got the breakdown of the cast for you!

• Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot, the star detective
• Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados, a Spanish missionary
• Willem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman, a scholar
• Dame Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff, a Russian princess
• Johnny Depp as Samuel Ratchett, a businessman and murder victim
• Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, the victim’s assistant
• Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton) as Dr. Arbuthnot, an American physician
• Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs. Hubbard, an American tourist and widow
• Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as Mary Debenham, a governess romantically involved with Dr. Arbuthnot
• Derek Jacob (Cinderella) as Edward Masterman, the victim’s butler
• Marwan Kenzari (The Mummy) as Pierre Michel, one of the train’s attendants
• Olivia Colman (The Night Manager) as Hildegarde Schmidt, the maid of Princess Dragomiroff
• Lucy Boynton (Miss Potter) as Countess Andrenyi, an addict with a possible dark secret
• Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (The Magnificent Seven) as Biniamino Marquez, a charismatic businessman
• Sergei Polunin (ballet dancer) as Count Andrenyi, a dancer
• Tom Bateman (Jekyll and Hyde) as Bouc, the train’s director
• Miranda Raison (Spotless) as Sonia Armstrong

While Colman explained that filming the project was a festival atmosphere with all the stars, getting all that talent on screen wasn’t easy. Scheduling was a difficult process, as Branagh stated, “It was a ton of planning, I’ll tell you. A delicate web of availability.” Not only was the scheduling difficult, but Branagh explained the need to wrangle the cast sometimes, as they were “very playful, ebullient, and like naughty schoolchildren at times.”

The cast members are not the only creative tools for story-telling to be found on the screen. Branagh worked to achieve a sense of authentic antiquity on the screen. The cast found themselves in an original Orient Express train with original or authentic copies of fittings, beds, coat hooks, light switches, and so much more. Rather than green screen surroundings, moving scenery was put on LED screens outside the train car windows with hydraulics and air bellows to simulate natural train movement. (It was authentic enough to even make one cast member with motion sickness feel their symptoms rise up.)

Branagh paid attention to lavish and minute details on the screen with great intention. “I liked the sense that I could let the audience escape into that world, where the details of what characters are touching, seeing, eating, drinking, wearing, are a significant part of the pleasure. We live in a world where everything is so transient quick, it seemed to me a period in which, from a piece of linen to a glass of water to an arrangement of flowers, there could be a way of evoking a parenthesis of calm in an incredibly rushed life.”

It wasn’t just the train itself that was designed to feel so real. Costumes were made with period accurate materials and hand-sewn methods, for example. Detective Poirot’s mustache was also designed to be an impressively accurate homage to the stories. Author Agatha Christie herself had commented on previous film iterations that Poirot’s magnificent mustache was not given the attention it was due, so Branagh ensured that she would be pleased, even beyond the grave, with a mustache for the ages.

Murder on the Orient Express was also filmed using what is rumored to be the last four 65mm cameras in the world. While it is likely the film will still only be shown on 35mm or digital projectors, the 65mm filming process was designed to give the movie a special depth. With Zambarloukos behind the camera and the experience of at least three feature films shot in 35mm, the 65mm was likely used to its fullest capacity.

What kind of story was the festive and playful cast putting together? If you aren’t familiar with the plot, Murder on the Orient Express is a classic “who-dunnit” mystery. On a train ride through Europe that is full of strangers, a murderer strikes. An avalanche stops the train, trapping all the passengers, the killer, and the hero detective together. In a thrilling journey, detective Poirot must search for clues and connect the pieces to catch the killer before they have a chance to strike again.

Branagh was excited to tell the story on screen again. “I liked the ensemble [nature] of it. I like it being enclosed in snow, the claustrophobia. And it’s a tale that sums up the golden age of travel: a world in which you feel the miles under your feet.”

If you have read Christie’s story, you might think you know how the story ends. Will there still be some surprises in store with the story adapted for the big screen? Twists and turns may be par for the course. Branagh stated, “I think what I found in the book again, and in the screenplay, was that it unleashed something very primal, very kind of grisly. I realize that we could find a way to have the fun of Agatha Christie, but have the absolutely deadly intention behind it, and the danger. I think we’re making a scarier film than people might imagine. We’re not trying to turn it into something it isn’t, but I think we’re away from the drawing room mystery and we’re into something [else]. Because the book is also a dark psychological revenge drama.”

This new film adaptation might not only exploit the darker corners of the classic story, it also has some modernized characters. Writer Michael Green wrote the characters that way. “Christie had a tendency to fill her books with 60-year-old English white people, which only takes you so far in terms of interest and casting.” To resolve that, Green wrote the formerly Swedish missionary as Spanish. He converted the book’s Colonel Arbuthnot from a white English soldier to an American doctor of color. The doctor of color was also written to be in a relationship with the white governess character Mary Debenham.

Leslie Odom, Jr., filling the role of Arbuthnot, believes the change added interest and depth to the character. “He’s a black doctor in the early 20th century. What kind of injustices might he have endured? What would that man have had to be made of to get to where he was?”

To see all the authentic attention-to-detail and the mystery at hand, you can see the trailer for yourself right here:

Did you catch the clues in the trailer? While you wait for the film, you can get in on the fun of mystery-solving by going to the film’s website: www.CluesAreEverywhere.com.

Murder on the Orient Express has a 114 minute runtime with a PG-13 rating. The movie will have its red carpet premiere at Royal Albert Hall in London on November 2, with the actual Orient Express train arriving at St. Pancras station as part of the celebration. Murder on the Orient Express is set to be released in theaters in the U.S. on November 10.

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