Murder on the Orient Express isn’t just a remake, or another adaptation of a classic text, it’s also undoubtedly an attempt to contemporise an incredibly well known piece of work, in this case Agatha Christie’s legendary 1934 detective novel featuring her most famed, irrepressible character: Inspector Hercule Poirot. Don’t get me wrong, the piece remains set in the mid-1930’s, with period production values and Kenneth Branagh’s protagonist sporting the most daring, rakish moustache you could imagine, but everything about Branagh’s new take on the material is concerned with highlighting the simmering, modern day issues which Michael Green’s screenplay picks out of this hugely popular piece of detective fiction.
Christie’s original story sees Poirot seeking a holiday, following a case in the Middle East, but upon being recalled back to London to consult on a case, he boards the Orient Express in Istanbul with an eclectic group of passengers from all corners of the world, one of whom in short order ends up dead as the train is stalled by an avalanche while travelling through the mountains. Cue the inspector attempting to put the pieces together in true sleuth fashion, negotiating the myriad egos and personalities of everything from middle-aged American lushes to aged Russian princesses. Well known for its ultimate twist (one I didn’t infact know, nor which I will spoil), Poirot’s ultimate detection leads him to multiple realisations, both literal and emotional.
Branagh’s Poirot, honestly, could end up the incarnation for a new breed of film fans. His ripe Belgian brogue, big bushy grey moustache, and all of the quirks the character entails, could no doubt engender him to people new to Christie and the character. Orient Express makes a point of establishing the possibility of a sequel, a very famous one in fact, and if the picture does well domestically and globally you may well see multiple stories filmed with Branagh’s version of the detective.
This would be no bad thing, as he brings a level of humour, warmth and compassion to a character who begins as a fascinating, detached enigma. Poirot as a character is legendary, but when we first meet him solving a case at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem no less, Poirot the detective is equally as globally well known. Hercule himself even describes his reputation at one point, without ego, as “probably the greatest detective in the world”. Branagh’s film and Green’s script makes a key point of establishing Poirot very much in the vein of some of storytelling’s best loved sleuths; he has the rare insight of Sherlock, able to see thanks to his ‘little grey cells’ the key details most other people miss, but he lacks the arrogance, self-obsession or predilection for vice Arthur Conan Doyle enjoyed adding to his creation.
The detective comes to realise, in quite how the case presents itself, that he can only solve what to this point was his most trying investigation, by understanding the curious mystery of the human heart. It’s a powerful realisation, one which connects him back to a constant Poirot often forgets – a woman, Katherine, who he loved a long time ago. Green’s script doesn’t go out of its way to give us backstory we don’t need, but it’s enough for Branagh’s committed, dignified performance to tether on an emotional track which, by the climax, makes his own choices all the more significant and easy to understand. Poirot solves his case, but he also learns the power and importance of emotion within those absolutes.
On this regard, it also explores themes which play in the modern social and political continuum. Race is the principle worry and concern of Green’s script. Branagh’s film, pointedly, makes Colonel Arbuthnot here not only the doctor in the story, but also a black man (Leslie Odom. Jr) who was sponsored to gain his position in the medical profession in England, against the racial tide of the day, after saving the life of a white man in the First World War. The chauffeur turned car salesman is no longer an Italian like in the book, but here is reconceptualised as an aspirational Mexican named Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), bucking the American trend of institutional Latino racism to capture a semblance of the American Dream. These changes aren’t incidental, they’re quite key, and the script doesn’t hide them.
Though few of the characters involved and pure as the driven snow (an ample metaphor given the frosty surroundings of the story), the only character who truly displays a forward thinking mindset when it comes to race relations is Daisy Ridley’s Mary Debenham, a cut-glass English governess who challenges Hardman’s metaphor about keeping red and white wine separate or the taste is ruined, in reference to racial segregation, by pouring both flavours into one class and commenting “I quite enjoy a Rose”. An axiom that would put a smile on the face of many a modern day audience member and proof of Branagh’s message here about the futility of racial prejudice, or indeed class separation, in the face of the most cardinal sin: murder.
Ultimately, while there is the under layer of weighty themes and meaningful concepts, Murder on the Orient Express is principally designed as a throwback to a different cinematic age. Branagh shoots with a wide, expressive lens, capturing the Eastern romance of Istanbul or the cold, imposing mountain ranges of Eastern Europe, supported by an elegant, darkly romantic score by his usual orchestral collaborator Patrick Doyle. Casting luminaries such as Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer (experiencing something of a career resurgence of late) gives it a unique feel.
While this take on Murder on the Orient Express is destined to exist as a Sunday afternoon matinee picture people will throw on and bask in, one that could bear a new franchise for Branagh’s Poirot if the box office checks out, there is unmistakable depth and humanity inside the confectionary of its exterior and its big-budget staging. It humanises the superhuman. If we do get a new Death on the Nile, Poirot may not need his eggs perfectly balanced next time around.
Murder on the Orient Express is now in cinemas across the UK. You can find more in-depth thoughts on the film on my blog, Cultural Conversation, here.