Chattanooga Times Free Press - Parade - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARA REINSTEIN






Fif­teen peo­ple board a train. Come morn­ing, one will be dead and nearly all the oth­ers are sus­pects. It’s a mur­der mys­tery so clas­sic that only one per­son could have crafted it. More than 80 years af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion as a de­tec­tive novel, and more than four decades af­ter its first adap­ta­tion as a movie, a new, star-stud­ded ver­sion of Agatha Christie’s

Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press steams onto the big screen Nov. 10. Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeif­fer, Judi Dench, Daisy Ri­d­ley, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and oth­ers come aboard to play sus­pi­cious char­ac­ters from all cor­ners of the world.

Of course, ev­ery­one—from the wealthy widow to the diplo­mat, the doc­tor and

the aris­to­crat—claims in­no­cence. Leave it to master de­tec­tive Her­cule Poirot, the hero of 33 Christie nov­els, to sniff out the du­plic­ity and the de­cep­tion. Though the clas­sic who­dunit has been around since 1934, “the story still feels su­per­fresh,” says the new film’s di­rec­tor, Ken­neth Branagh, who also plays the le­gendary Bel­gian sleuth.

Branagh, 56, who also di­rected Thor and Cin­derella, stuck to Christie’s orig­i­nal 1930s set­ting in hopes that au­di­ences will ap­pre­ci­ate a time when train travel was con­sid­ered an ex­otic ex­pe­ri­ence. “We live in a world that is so manic,” he says. “I wanted to take peo­ple to a place where you could see the world go by. There’s some­thing mag­i­cal about it.” Christie’s nov­els, such as And Then There

Were None and The Wit­ness for the Pros­e­cu­tion, have been adapted for the screen dozens of times since 1937. Mur­der on the

Ori­ent Ex­press spawned a pre­vi­ous 1974 film, as well as a 2001 TV movie and a TV episode of the Bri­tish se­ries Agatha

Christie’s Poirot. TV’s 30 Rock par­o­died it, and ev­ery movie or tele­vi­sion show with a sus­pense­ful mo­ment on a train pays it some kind of homage, in­ten­tional or not.

Many of the cast mem­bers of the new movie were very familiar with Christie and her work. But Josh Gad, 36, who played LeFou in Beauty and the Beast and voiced Olaf in Frozen, ad­mits he wasn’t one of them. “I was not some­body who grew up read­ing [her], but I’m ab­so­lutely ob­sessed now. Her books are in­deli­ble. They’re as ro­man­tic and cap­ti­vat­ing now as they were when they were first re­leased—the very essence of a page-turner.”


To help assem­ble his dream cast, Branagh ap­proached an old friend who di­rected him in two plays in the late ’80s. Her friends call her Judi. Oth­ers call her Dame Judi or Dame Dench. “Judi was do­ing a play on Lon­don’s West End,” he says. “I went back­stage and pre­sented her with a silk hand­ker­chief em­broi­dered with her ini­tials, and put it in a box with her char­ac­ter’s name on it. If you know the story, you’ll un­der­stand it. There was a note in­side that read, ‘Would you like to play Princess Dragomiroff?’ She said, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’”

With the 82-year-old Os­car win­ner signed on, many oth­ers fol­lowed, ex­cited at the prospect of col­lab­o­rat­ing in an ac­claimed ensem­ble—and, in some cases, re­unit­ing with old friends and for­mer co-stars. Dench and Depp had a par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence on the set of 2011’s Pi­rates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

“He jumped into a car­riage in which I was sit­ting, bit my ear and took my ear­ring off,” Dench re­calls. “And then maybe a year and a half later, sud­denly the ear­ring was re­turned to me.” It’s framed in her kitchen.


On day one in Jan­uary, the cast was dropped off at the set out­side Lon­don, where the vibe was akin to the first day of school. As they stood in front of a mas­sive replica of a four-car­riage train (plus the lo­co­mo­tive), “some were very, very quiet,” says Branagh.

Ri­d­ley, 25, known as Jedi fighter Rey in the new Star Wars films, agrees. “I was so ner­vous! I thought to my­self, I shouldn’t

be here,” says the ac­tress, who had to au­di­tion for her role as gov­erness Mary Debenham, the se­cret girl­friend of an­other pas­sen­ger on the train. “I was sur­rounded by peo­ple who have worked for years and years and have proven them­selves again and again. I’ve done nei­ther.”

Be­fore the day was over, the ensem­ble had shot the film’s most in­tri­cate scene, in which Poirot in­ter­ro­gates all the pas­sen­gers. “I thought it was a mis­take on the sched­ule,” says Cruz, who por­trays Span­ish mis­sion­ary Pilar Es­trava­dos. “He did it on pur­pose to cap­ture the fear and

in­se­cu­rity on the first day!”

The close quar­ters in­side the per­fectly pro­por­tioned train (which ran on a mile of real track in­side the sound­stage) quickly led to close bond­ing. Gad—who plays Hec­tor MacQueen, the as­sis­tant to Depp’s se­cre­tive Amer­i­can busi­ness­man, Ed­ward Ratchett—still can’t get over how the enig­matic 54-year-old A-lis­ter star of the Pi­rates of the Caribbean fran­chise and dozens of other movies in­vited him to hang out in his trailer be­tween takes, where they watched funny YouTube videos.

“We’d sit there and guf­faw like 13-year-old boys,” says Gad. “He’s so in­stantly re­lat­able and charm­ing.”


In the off-time, the stars hung out to­gether, en­joyed af­ter-hours drinks and played the party card game Were­wolf. “I brought it with me be­cause I thought it would be a good act­ing ex­er­cise,” Cruz ex­plains. “It’s about keep­ing se­crets, trust and telling lies.” Adds Les­lie Odom Jr., the Hamil­ton Tony win­ner who por­trays the movie’s Dr. Ar­buth­not, “We’d play for hours and hours. We were the big­gest nerds.”

That play­ful­ness trans­lates on­screen, says the di­rec­tor. “But when the cam­era rolled, there was in­tense con­cen­tra­tion. It felt like work­ing with the Har­lem Glo­be­trot­ters. No­body wanted to drop the ball.”

Branagh is ea­ger to in­tro­duce his cast and his old-fash­ioned thriller to a new au­di­ence. He filmed it with old-school widescreen cam­eras be­cause “I wanted to make a movie that peo­ple see on a big screen. You’ll get to see and hear the train. There’s an ex­cite­ment to that.”

Ri­d­ley says Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press is a fresh al­ter­na­tive to spe­cial-ef­fects ex­trav­a­gan­zas—in­clud­ing her next movie, Star

Wars: The Last Jedi, which opens on Dec. 15—“a nice es­cape, a slower story that un­folds in a place that peo­ple can’t es­cape from. Just watch peo­ple on a train who have po­ten­tially done some­thing bad and watch some­one try to fig­ure it out.” In­deed, there’s a rea­son why an 83-year-old mys­tery en­dures. “When you think you know the an­swer, it com­pletely turns in an un­ex­pected direc­tion,” Cruz says. “There are so many lay­ers that an 18-year-old and an 80-year-old can con­nect with it. This is a story that will never get old.”

From left: Ken­neth Branagh, Michelle Pfeif­fer, Daisy Ri­d­ley, Johnny Depp, Tom Bate­man, Derek Ja­cobi, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Lucy Boyn­ton, Les­lie Odom Jr. and Penélope Cruz

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