By Claire Booth
I finally had the chance to see the new Murder on the Orient Express yesterday, and I was, well, flat-out nervous about it. On the one hand, I was eager to erase any last memories of the horrible Albert Finney version. On the other, David Suchet is incomparable and every television episode in which he played Poirot is a jewel in Agatha Christie’s detective crown.
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I read my first Agatha Christie in middle school. She is the reason I love crime fiction, the reason I love a book that is a puzzle, and the reason I know that a finely drawn protagonist is something that will last the ages.
This movie version is directed by and stars Kenneth Branagh, who chooses to make the meticulous Belgian less finicky and more a prisoner of his own “little gray cells.” He can’t abide anything crooked or off-balance, and at one point says that this way of seeing the world is what compels him to be a detective.
Branagh chooses an almost James Bond-ian opening, with the film’s first ten minutes going to a completely unrelated criminal case, much like 007 makes it through a fantastical stunt chase that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Branagh uses it as an opportunity to familiarize newcomers with a few of the detective’s personality quirks, which I think is absolutely key to any hope of bringing new Poirot devotees on board.
After that prologue, the movie slows way down. I thought it took too long to get to the murder. There are many shots of train passengers walking around. Some of them talk to Poirot, some of them don’t. It’s inconsistent and possibly confusing for someone with no prior knowledge of the mystery. Once the victim is found dead, however, the momentum picks up and the suspects start to differentiate themselves.
Branagh chooses to inject several modern conventions into the plot. Poirot dwells on a lost love, and he suffers much more of a moral dilemma at the end than Christie put him through in the book. Branagh also ups the action quotient with several chase scenes not in the book. They would’ve been absurd for Suchet’s Poirot, but Branagh makes it work for his.
The most disappointing – and to me, heretical – change was the location of the climactic scene. It doesn’t take place on the train. It’s at the mouth of a snowy train tunnel, with the suspects spread out behind a table like some sort of Last Supper tableau. In the book, it occurs in the restaurant car. You know, on the train. The movie location loses the claustrophobia of a narrow train car, where the suspects are forced to sit looking at one another because there literally is no where else to turn. Instead they all face outward in such a way that no two characters can be in the frame at the same time. (And if you know who done it in this mystery, you know why that wasn’t the way to go.)
A newbie might sniff and call a group of suspects voluntarily sitting together for the unveiling of a killer nothing but a cliché. But every cliché starts somewhere, and this one started with Christie. It’s an absolute hallmark of the Golden Age of detective fiction, the decades between world wars when crime fiction authors, mostly British, perfected the art form.
As a movie standing alone, it was good. Not great. But for me, I still can’t get away from the Suchet comparison. For me, he is Poirot. Branagh is an interpretation. But maybe somewhere, some young teenagers are seeing this movie and its detective for the first time. And Branagh’s Poirot will become their entry into a world of clues and killers and puzzles and idiosyncrasies, and a lifetime of reading crime fiction. And that would be fine with me. Any Christie is better than no Christie at all.