Murder, mystery, fine dining and first-class travel, 1930s style. Welcome aboard the Orient Express for Kenneth Branagh’s lavish all-star adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery Murder on the Orient Express.
Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is intending to take a break in Istanbul, after solving a potentially explosive case in Jerusalem, when he is urgently called back to London, requiring him to change his plans and find a berth on the fully booked Orient Express. Luckily, his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), director of the Orient Express, is also travelling and is able to find him a spot.
Poirot is looking forward to relaxing on the journey, reading Dickens and enjoying the fine food and wine, when the train is derailed by an avalanche and a murder is discovered. Everyone is a suspect, and so Poirot must use his “little grey cells” to solve the case before the police get involved, to save the passengers and the company the distress and bad publicity of being linked to a murder.
Agatha Christie is rightly called the “Queen of Crime”, but her work and her genius is often underrated. Raymond Chandler was famously critical, arguing that Christie and her ilk of Golden Age Crime Writers, like Dorothy L. Sayers, were dull and lacking in humanity, preferring to create a literary puzzle for the reader to solve, one that was far removed from everyday life. He praised them as “incomparably the best dull writers in the world”, who at least made the setting seem real, unlike the Hollywood artificiality of the Americans who aped them. But his preference was for Dashiell Hammett, the hard-boiled poet whose detectives are open to using their brawn as well as their brains to solve cases and right wrongs.
But Chandler’s distinction is as artificial as his own stories. While it’s true that the English school can seem little more than a literary crossword puzzle, it is nonetheless driven by the same forces as all detective stories. As Chandler, and G.K. Chesterton before him, point out, detective stories are tales of knight-errantry in modern dress and modern environs. They are tied to the poetry of civilisation, of cities and towns and technology, and have at their heart a desire to illuminate the darkness by bringing to light those who fracture the order of the world by committing crimes.
Christie’s writing style is as allusive and minimalist as a line drawing, painting the scene and the characters only as much is as necessary, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. In this respect it resembles those other great popular works of fairy and folktales and the ways in which those stories leave details to the storyteller. This creates fertile ground for adaptations, adaptations that are then free to deepen or, as is popular now, twist the story to suit the ends of the adapter.
As with his superb versions of Shakespeare and his enchanting Cinderella, Branagh prefers to take the first option, adding depths by asking why and why again, changing things only to add to the story without changing its meaning.
However, the depths he adds are slight when compared with the astonishing richness and nuance of the David Suchet series, especially with regards to this story. The Suchet series homes in on Christie’s regular allusions to Poirot as a practising Catholic who not only disapproves of murder but also believes in the impact of sin. While Branagh mentions Poirot’s desire for order and opposition to evil, such mentions have none of the tragic power of watching an agonised, rosary-clutching Poirot contemplating what he should do. Moreover, the Suchet version achingly depicts the effects of murder upon a murderer, even one who believes himself entirely justified.
These depths go to the heart of Christie’s enduring genius. She may not have written gargantuan volumes of Proustian psychology, but her insights into human nature remain keen and insightful. For Christie the “whodunit” always turns on the “whydunit”, and as a result motive comes to the fore. In her case, the power of the passions and how they can overrule our reason and our very humanity.
Christie focuses on the individual and the impact their choices have, thus making of her mysteries a sort of modern-day morality plays.
Nonetheless, Branagh’s film is a beautifully shot and enjoyable romp at the cinema. But for a much more powerful and affecting version, seek out the masterful series starring David Suchet.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).