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All aboard for this exquisite production that brings a classic whodunit from the past into the present with a fresh dose of resonance.

Strangers on a Train

Kenneth Branagh is Hercule Poirot
Kenneth Branagh is Hercule Poirot

For some, no doubt, it’s a mystery as to whether or not the world needs another remake of Murder on the Orient Express. Let’s take a look at the evidence, round up the usual suspects and deduce the answer.

For starters, the last big screen adaptation was back in 1974; Sidney Lumet’s version was well-received and earned six Oscar nominations, including a statue win for Ingrid Bergman. But there have also been no less than three TV versions within the past 17 years. One transported the story to the new millennium, one was a Japanese take and one was part of a long-running Agatha Christie TV series.

So, from the outset, there’s some baggage that needs to be removed from the train. There really haven’t been that many truly significant adaptations. From that aspect alone, Hercule Poirot’s infamous train trip was ripe for a big screen update.

In director Kenneth Branagh, this trip enjoys the vision of a top-rail creative talent with a taste for literature. Branagh’s tackled Shakespeare several times, including Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1990); Mary Shelley with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994); Anthony Shaffer with Sleuth (2007); Mother Goose by way of Charles Perrault with Cinderella (2015); and even Stan Lee and company with the first Thor standalone movie in 2011. Agatha Christie? It seems so elementary to put Christie in Branagh’s capable hands, kind of like how Guy Ritchie brought modern cinematic and storytelling sensibilities to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Consider the Source

Let’s also consider the story’s provenance. British author Agatha Christie’s classic was first published in 1934. Agatha Christie. A Wonder Woman in her own right. According to agathachristie.com, her 66 novels and 14 short story collections have sold more than 2 billion copies. That’s a benchmark of Biblical proportions, pun completely intended. She was born in 1890 and lived in an era when a woman’s place was — basically — in the kitchen. Trailblazer? Heck yeah. But in a most stiff upper-lip British sort of way.

Certainly, it’s time for her works to be brought to the attention of new generations and a well-crafted big-screen retelling is the perfect ticket.

Much like Ritchie with Holmes, Branagh brings back (“probably”) the world’s greatest detective in a lavishly mounted production with modern visual effects, slick camera movements and a contemporary cast that includes some of the biggest names in the business, including legendary Judi Dench (Skyfall), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Willem Dafoe (The English Patient), Johnny Depp (The Pirates of the Caribbean), Michelle Pfeiffer (What Lies Beneath) and Derek Jacobi (Dead Again).

And, best of all, Branagh is Hercule Poirot. Awesome. Maybe it’s a matter of generational tastes and familiarity with what’s happened before that’ll dictate how one responds to this Poirot, but for this day and age, Branagh is spot on and nothing less than captivating. He nails the humor, the obnoxiousness, the fastidiousness, the cool and, ultimately, the humanity of a man who can only see the world as it should be, a man who lives in a world with only two sides: right and wrong. Even his mustache is worthy of its own Oscar.

Oh. And Branagh went “old school” in this respect: He shot Murder on the Orient Express on 65 mm Kodak film.

If there is justice for movies, Branagh will return as Poirot. A trip down the Nile, perhaps? This rendition certainly opens the door for that very possibility.

Everyone Is a Suspect

Given the ensemble cast of characters, the setting provides a rich tapestry in which to weave themes, thoughts and reflections; from a distance it rather gently comments on America’s hopes, dreams and materialism (staying quite faithful to the source material) as the back story of an American baby’s kidnapping and murder set the stage for a chain of events that destroys numerous lives.

Unlike the ‘74 version, racism is brought back to the foreground and the litany of prejudices within the roundup of potential culprits is given room to elucidate the tensions of a world on edge.

In that atmosphere, leave it to Poirot to find joy — and perfection — in a Turkish bakery. In need of a holiday, little did he know riding the high-class Orient Express would rope him into a brutal murder mystery featuring a trainload of people hauling all sorts of baggage — the emotional and psychological variety, never mind the suit cases and checked bags.

History Repeating

Let’s also consider the time — the 1930s. When Christie’s story first appeared, it was a chilly, turbulent period between World Wars I and II. During that era, the world was trying to find a common ground even as it was pulling apart at the seams; the U.S. experienced an influx of immigrants seeking a fresh start and a new hope. In 1932, American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son was kidnapped; the body was found a couple months later, brutally mutilated. And the 1930s also brought on the Great Depression in the U.S. economy.

Flashing forward 40 years, in 1974 a large part of the world was reeling from the insanity of the Vietnam War. Several countries, including the U.S. and the U.K, were subject to an oil embargo brought on by political turmoil in the MIddle East, causing severe gas shortages and long lines as people hoped to fuel up their gas-guzzling vehicles.

And now, tacking on another 43 years, the world is still one big mess in terms of geopolitical tensions, pockets of war-torn territories, displaced populations seeking new homes, natural disasters wreaking havoc at a seemingly more rapid rate and racial tensions once again making headlines, particularly in the U.S.

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Maybe this train ride can help people remember.