Murder on the Orient Express has been one of my favorite Agatha Christie stories ever since I read the short story “Murder in the Calais Coach” as a kid. Sidney Lumet’s 1974 feature starring Albert Finney with Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for this) and Sir John Gielgud was so tonally perfect it scares the crap out of me every time I see it.
I ignore the TV versions. CBS’s rancid waste of time with Alfred Molina and Meredith Baxter and the ITV effort as part of Agatha Christie’s Poirot series where Jessica Chastain’s secretary was the mastermind. Blasphemy. Although I will shout out David Suchet. Best. Poirot. Ever.
Still, I was excited when the 2017 remake directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as the world’s greatest detective Hercule Poirot came out last fall. Then I saw it. And was disappointed. This month it is all over HBO and with the ability to watch it more closely… I am still disappointed. Despite all of the things I love– the diversity within the storytelling, the cast, the cinematography, it’s a sumptuous travelogue. And Branagh’s Poirot – that mustache is everything. However, there are some things that I t need to be understood and corrected before another mistake is made.
Memo to Mr. Branagh: You don’t assemble an all-star cast and forget to let them shine. Now that a semi-sequel is a go, I hope your Death on the Nile is as successful as your train trip. By all means open it up, but still– don’t deviate from the theme or plot, especially if it changes the tone.
Screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) updated this version by opening it up visually and changing the focus from the all-star suspects to the detective. That’s where they lost me.
This is a murder-mystery not an action thriller. Claustrophobia is required to maintain the chills and thrills. The Lumet version stays mostly on the train and is grandiose and boxed-in without feeling stuffy or over-stuffed. The actors have fun with their characters bordering on camp without going full-blown farce.
SPOILERS ahead in case you don’t know the plot.
Here the filmmakers create an isolated Eastern European mountain atmosphere. Why? No idea. This is the freaking Orient Express. The granddaddy of luxury train travel in its day. And still has the romance and intrigue of something exciting about to happen. For the love of God, don’t get off the train. The entire plot takes place on the train. Sure, keep your stunning amber sunsets and icy mountain passes, but this movie should be cramped, atmospheric and moody. The audience should feel uncomfortable, not like they could make snow angels under shooting stars.
This update includes a change in theme. The American justice of trial by jury in the Lumet version is replaced by biblical justice of moral vs. right. Green opens his screenplay introducing Poirot in Jerusalem at the wailing wall with religious leaders from three big faiths as suspects. He couldn’t have hit us over the head any harder. Poirot literally steps in horse shit twice to symbolize his need to reach a balance of the two.
Green also added contemporary action scenes in an atmospheric mystery. That feels wrong. In 1935 Hercule Poirot only need his little grey cells and an innocent suspect as muscle. In 2017 Poirot carries a gun. I can only assume because Branagh wants to stress how virile and macho he is. Look, he can chase a suspect along dangerous train tracks. Listen, he had a girlfriend who haunts his memory. Why not just pose in a Calvin Klein underwear add and get it out of your system? Leave Poirot alone. He is perfect as written.
Memo to Mr. Branagh: (Sir? Has he been knighted yet?) the hairy beast resting spectacularly on your upper lip is the star. Keep that, but please, for the love of God, let us know all the characters, not just you and see all the clues to give us a chance to solve the mystery. Do not short change any of the suspects for your egocentric need to indulge the detective. We get it. He’s Poirot. He’s a one-of-a-kind genius.
Can you name any of the characters in this movie? Other than Poirot? Think about it. I’ll wait. Michelle Pfeiffer. What was her character? Are you sure? She was the American looking for a rich husband. Johnny Depp. Hmm. Yeah, what can be said about his acting? His recent characters appear as doppelgängers for his personal life. Which is a nice way of saying he’s become a cartoon and it is difficult to take his characterization of the villainous Ratchett seriously.
Monsieur Poirot’s playing up his OCD never has the fun that both Finney and Peter Ustinov’s (in Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun) immodest geniuses had and takes away from developing the other characters. If Branagh had instructed his actors to kick up the camp a notch then they all would have been in sync. Pfeiffer and Josh Gad, bless them, seemed to get the need to be sassy or droll as the scene permits. The others seem self-serious, or too deferential to Poirot. All of this would have been taken care of had the focus been on the suspects as Mrs. Christie intended. In this version, the stunning cast has nothing to do but occupy space.
We watch mysteries not only to see the detective solve the case, but to participate in solving it with him. This remake took that away from us. We watch the detective rather than join him on the ride. For example, when the body is discovered it is an overhead catwalk shot – are you kidding? This is the big ticket – the murder. I don’t want to see the tops of heads or a bloody sheet from a bird’s eye. Get that camera in there and give me a close-up on the blood-drained face and rigor mortis.
The information we are given is spoon fed as if the filmmakers don’t trust us to solve the murder so we never even get to try. As an emerging screenwriter, I look for the inner and outer story. Here, it’s the morality of murder and finding out who killed Johnny Depp, err– Ratchett. In order to do that the audience needs context. The backstory at the beginning gets the audience involved.
This is something the 1974 film understood very well. The Armstrong kidnapping information. Opening with the immediate consequences of the event then cutting to six years later gives the audience a foundation. When Finney learns Anthony Perkins’ father was the D.A. In the case you think – oh, he could have done it. Then when you learn Wendy Hiller was the child’s godmother, you think – oh, she could have done it. And so one. It gives one pause. And hairs raise as each piece of the puzzle falls in place. That is the spine of the story – not Poirot’s greatness.
One of the fails of Mr. Branagh’s version is the inability to relate to any of the suspects. Because we know nothing of the Armstrong kidnapping there is no way we can even guess their true motives. Not fair, sir. In this version, the context is not up front, but after the body is discovered. That is Poirot telling us, rather than the audience actively participating. We have no way of knowing anything related to the inner story– so it seems to come from nowhere.
Obviously Branagh and Green didn’t trust the source material and added a modern element of keeping the lead character involved. Poirot missed the opportunity to work on the murdered child case and has always regretted not receiving a letter from the child’s father earlier. The insinuation is if Poirot had worked on this case there would be no murder on the orient express because Ratchett would have been found sooner. Heavy sigh. The audience needs information that informs the plot. Poirot is not part of that context.
Mysteries are puzzles to be solved by the audience as well as the detective. Said detective is our representative on the case. He is not one of the puzzle pieces. He does not keep the puzzle to himself and dole out information as he sees fit. So when all the information comes at once from Poirot’s personal involvement. Oh and everyone on board has a connection? There is no mystery to solve. There is no puzzle because there are no coincidences. SPOILER ALERT*** They all did it because they are all connected.
The ending is truly troublesome. Branagh and Green hit us over the head again with a religious metaphor assembling the suspects at a long table arranged like DaVinci’s “The Last Supper”– with Pfeiffer as Jesus. For his Poirot it all comes down to “Thou shalt not kill” because the audience is not smart enough to handle the intricacies of revenge.
“You tell your lies and you think no one will know. But two people will know. Your God and Hercule Poirot.” Murder in all forms is wrong, check. But are these characters akin to Jesus and the apostles? Really, Ken? His revelation is less about how all of the suspects are working together and more about Christian morality, going so far as allowing them to confess. As in “Confession is good for the soul.”
In the 1974 film, the suspects allow Poirot to tell the story but never give it up. They are people with whom we identify as humans. They worked their morality to allow themselves to commit this crime, but Lumet has enough respect for them, Poirot and the audience to not make them say their guilt aloud. By the time Michelle Pfeiffer’s Christ-in-a-Marcel-wave-wig goes off on her “I did it. Punish me not them” rant, I’ve changed the channel.
Memo the Kenneth Branagh – it’s only a movie, darling. Solving the case is enough. Poirot does not need to be related to the past history that leads to the crime. I have no doubt you will do your next Agatha Christie ensemble justice but with Ordeal by Innocence coming out this year Christie stories are big business. For the gravy train to continue, Poirot needs to solve the case and the audience needs to feel like his silent partners. Give us the puzzle pieces to help put it together. Remember, it’s our box office dollars that keep you in mustache wax.