Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is more for fans of mysteries than fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Branagh has transformed Poirot into a Belgium detective into a character more like Arthur Conan Doyle’s super man, Sherlock Holmes–a man of intellect and action.
Although Poirot is Belgian, he has often been played by Brits. Most recently David Suchet starred in ITV Studios’ “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” for 13 series with a total of 70 episodes. The series which began in 1989 follows Poirot to his last case (“Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case”). Suchet was actually recommended for the part by Christie’s family and as a method actor, he prepared by reading all of the “Poirot” novels and short stories and taking notes about Poirot’s mannerisms. The series did take on “Murder on the Orient Express” for a Boxing Day episode in 2010 which featured Jessica Chastain and Hugh Bonneville (Series 12).
‘Murder on the Orient Express’ 1974
Director Sidney Lumet (“Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico”) brought “Murder on the Orient Express” to the silver screen in 1974 with a script written by Paul Dehn (“Seven Days to Noon”). That version received six Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Albert Finney for his portrayal of Poirot, but only won Best Actress for Ingrid Bergman’s performance.
In a montage, the incident that is a catalyst for the murder is portrayed in black and white before we meet Poirot. There’s a contrast between what people who recognize the famous detective see and what other’s perceive: A woman, Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), says, “What a funny little man” and the man with her, Col. Arbuthnot (Sean Connery), replies, “Obviously a frog.” Of course, that is one of the perceptions that plagues Poirot throughout his life. He is not French. He is Belgian.
The music sets us out on a fantastical journey which we already know is odd because, “It’s unbelievable. All the world wants to travel tonight” even though it is winter the Orient Express is full and only through a special favor does Poirot make it on the train at all.
On the train, a man named Ratchett (Richard Widmark) attempts to strike up a conversation with Poirot. He means to hire him because he has been threatened. Soon enough, he is murdered–stabbed but without murmuring a sound. This Ratchett is a normal looking man, not unpleasant in his appearance but in his demeanor.
Suchet’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’
Suchet has the distinction of playing Inspector Japp against Peter Ustinov’s Poirot in the 1986 TV movie “Murder in Three Acts.” Ustinov who played Poirot six times (“Death on the Nile,” 1978; “Evil Under the Sun,” 1982; “Appointment with Death,” 1988; “Thirteen at Dinner,” 1985; “Dead Man’s Folly,” 1986 and “Murder in Three Acts”), but played him without the black hair and dark suit. This he has in common with Branagh.
The novels describe Poirot from Captain Arthur Hastings perspective as:
He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible.
The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. (“The Mysterious Affair at Styles”)
For the novel “Orient Express,” Poirot is described as “By the step leading up into the sleeping-car stood a young French lieutenant, resplendent in uniform, conversing with a small man [Hercule Poirot] muffled up to the ears of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward-curled moustache.”
Other things one should know about Poirot: Poirot is punctual and also has a fondness for the number 4. He prefers to have a bank balance of 444 pounds, 4 shillings, and 4 pence. He was vain enough to dye his hair.
Physically, Suchet is close to the description of Poirot in height. Ustinov was 6-foot tall. Branagh is not that tall at 5-foot-9 (as was Albert Finney). Suchet is closer to Poirot’s true height at 5-foot-6.
In the beginning, Poirot is in Palestine resolving a “regimental difficulty” that results in a lieutenant’s suicide that bloodies Poirot’s face. Poirot is adamant that the lieutenant had a choice–to lie was a choice as was to commit suicide. Later, in Istanbul, he notices a British couple (Mary Debenham and Colonel John Arbuthnot) who along with him witness a woman being stoned to death because she is pregnant with another man’s child.
At the more civilized atmosphere of a hotel, Poirot has a message waiting for him and he must immediately leave for London. There he sees the man at the hotel who will also be on the train, Samuel Ratchett (Toby Jones). He also meets his younger friend, Xavier Bouc (Serge Hazanavicius), who through his influence gets Poirot a compartment on the Orient Express.
On the train, when Poirot bumps into Mary (Jessica Chastain), they briefly discuss the stoning. “Justice if often upsetting to witness,” Poirot says. He also notes that with other cultures it is best not to interfere. That doesn’t satisfy Mary, but we don’t immediately know the full reasons why.
In the Suchet adaptation, Poirot at first shares a compartment, but at Belgrade takes compartment 1 by himself before the murder. Before this Poirot goes to sleep, we see him praying and kissing his rosary. Unlike either movie, this Poirot doesn’t have a nightly routine associated with his vanity, in particular, his mustache (but he does ask for two eggs of exactly the same size for breakfast).
After the murder, both the 1974 version and this one use the interior windows to reflect the duplicity of the suspects. Some of the names are changed in all versions but the essential plot is the same.
As with the other two, the plot allows for well-known actors. Ratchett’s butler, Edward Masterman, is played by Hugh Bonneville who sums up the murdered man as a sewer rat in a suit. Barbara Hershey plays Caroline Hubbard. The role of Mary is enlarged to allow Chastain a chance to confront Poirot’s concept of morality.
This version of “Murder on the Orient Express” is one that is most concerned with Poirot’s inner conflict and his religious faith. It foreshadows what we know will be the solution of his last case.
Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’
The so-called Orient Express is a long-distance passenger train service but there is some confusion about which train route it was. The novel is actually set on what was the Simplon Orient Express which linked Calais, Paris and Istanbul every day, but, according to Seat61.com, “Orient Express only carried Paris-Istanbul cars three times a week, although both Orient and Simplon Orient would have been one combined train east of Belgrade.” The first Orient Express served Paris and Vienna.
Branagh’s film begins in Istanbul with a young boy running to deliver a covered package of great import: fresh eggs. The eggs are for Hercule Poirot’s breakfast and Poirot wants his two eggs to be perfectly identical. The boy and the kitchen staff are eager to please him because Poirot is at the height of his fame. This Poirot is a bit of a dandy. His hair isn’t black, but greying light brown as is his luxurious mustache, one that spans his cheeks and curls up before it reaches his ears and might be considered sideburns. If we were to define it, according to the AmericanMustache Institute.org, then we’d call it an imperial, which is longer than a handlebar.
Branagh’s Poirot is also well-dressed in a three-pieced suit that is medium grey, but not one flat color. This Poirot is not portly, a victim to his epicurean appetites, but a trim man of a certain age who has known love for a young woman named Katherine. He has a photo of her that he cherishes.
In the original novels, there is only one woman, Russian Countess Vera Rossakoff, that Poirot admitted to love and it was both comic and tragic. “It is the misfortune of small precise men to hanker after large and flamboyant women. Poirot had never been able to rid himself of the fatal fascination the Countess held for him.” Worse, for a detective, the Countess is often involved in shady business. In Branagh’s “Orient Express,” Katherine seems to be lovely in a conventional way and her age suggests that she was a love from Poirot’s youth.
A local law enforcement officer interrupts Poirot’s breakfast with a question that seems like the basis for a joke: A rabbi, a priest and an imam are meeting together and a precious relic is stolen. Poirot’s solution will surprise even the officer, but we’ll also learn that Poirot’s black walking stick with a silver handle is more of a weapon than a helpful aid for a man handicapped by an injury.
An important message forces Poirot on to the Orient Express. While on his way to the train, he hears two people, a white woman (Daisy Ridley) and a black man (Leslie Odom Jr.) talking to each other. This “Orient Express” takes on diversity and doesn’t ignore the problems of a black man in 1930s America.
The victim of the titular murder is the loathsome Edward Ratchett, played by Johnny Depp with a low, guttural growl and facial scars. No one likes him and one senses that his assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and his butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi) suffer under Ratchett’s unpleasant employment.
Before the murder, we meet a variety of people and their characters show them to be from different social classes. They present themselves as strangers, but we know they are not. Poirot’s presence is a bit of bad luck and this Poirot has a specific reason for remembering the catalyst for this particular murder. Outside of the train, there’s more bad luck. An avalanche causes the train to stop. Here, the detainment of the train by snow is more dramatically portrayed and the situation is what leads to a short dashing pursuit by this more athletic Poirot.
While in the 1974 movie and the Suchet TV episode, Poirot’s summation takes place inside the Orient Express, for this movie, the passengers are taken to a shelter inside a tunnel, seated at a long table so they can all face Poirot who stands in front of them. The scene allows all the famous faces to be seen (without constructing a who looks at whom rapid exchange which would have required a frightful diagram and storyboarding) but also dissolves the feeling of claustrophobia and the compartmentalization of each passenger and their hidden lives. Yet Branagh’s choice also emphasizes the revelation being brought out into the open with a more romantic usage of the snow. In the Suchet version, the passengers suffer from the cold as they wait for the train to be freed from the blizzard and are braced against the cold during Poirot’s summation, even though they remain inside the luxury of the train.
Branagh’s Poirot deviates the most of the three in Poirot’s characterization so this might not please purists. Branagh’s whodunit has a flippant atmosphere with a dramatic flare and its ending punchline references another famous Agatha Christie story. “Murder on the Orient Express” allows for the gathering of famous names and ensemble acting and the ending provides a heroic role for an older actresses. In the 1974 version, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman were featured. In the Suchet version, it was Barbara Hershey and Eileen Atkins with some help from Chastain. Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” brings together Michelle Pfeiffer and Judi Dench for an amusing yarn and their performances alone make this version worth seeing.
Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is an homage to Agatha Christie, but not really a consideration of the idiosyncratic, portly Poirot. Poirot has instead been re-cast as a handsome heroic figure that serves Branagh well but is faux Poirot.