Swigatha went to the ‘movies’ to check out the new version of Murder on the Orient Express. To say it has had a mixed reception in the press and on social media is to put it mildly – people either seem to love it or get bored by it. Of course, they are reviewing it as a blockbuster film, with loads of ‘stars’ in it (and rather more biffing than is in the book).
As such, the group of six I went with all enjoyed it, even if some were bewildered by how Poirot solved it. This is a much darker film than the lusciously-produced, all-star 1974 version. It is far more in keeping with the David Suchet version for ITV.
Their overall rating was – pretty good, with fine performances from Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi and Branagh himself, and a very good one from Michelle Pfeiffer as the ‘leader of the gang’, Mrs Hubbard.
I of course was judging it as an adaptation of Agatha Christie, as an exploration of one of the finest plots she invented. The film’s outline plot is the same as the one in the book, but the actual motive behind the events – a group of 12 people appointing themselves as both jury and executioner – is never really explained. The actual clues (including the important one that enabled Poirot to guess the identity of the victim) are all too often quickly passed over to make space for fatuous sub-plots that have nothing to do with it.
Here is one example. Right at the beginning, Poirot is entreated to resolve a dispute between the Muslim, Jewish and Christian priests based in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. He does so in sub-Cumberbatch-Sherlock style by using his stick to entrap the real villain, who is of course the person that asked him to intervene in the first place.
For the rest of the film, Poirot spends more time assessing his breakfast eggs (one of the few attempts at humour in the film) than hinting to his partner M. Bouc (and us) what is going on. The pace of the whole film feels wrong, and the thrills and changes of character brought in to pander to the supposed tastes of modern audiences just don’t work or make sense. The story is about 15 people who get stuck in a railway carriage for a few days with no way out – all they can do is talk, and the truth is revealed in what they say and how they say it. Not in this film.
Who are these guys?
Every adaptation of a book for a film should be allowed some leeway with its depiction of the characters, but this one goes too far:
- The aristocratic diplomat Count Andrenyi from the book appears here as a kick-boxing (in 1934!), ballet-dancing diplomat in this film. He literally kicks Poirot out of his bedroom.
- The high-minded Colonel Arbuthnot of the book appears as a sharp-shooting doctor who not only wounds Poirot in the shoulder to ‘warn him off’, but also stabs Mrs Hubbard, the ‘jury’s forewoman’, in the shoulder for reasons which escaped me.
- The character of the Swedish nurse, for which Ingrid Bergman won her Oscar in 1974, has been replaced by a Spanish nurse named Pilar Estravados. I suppose it allowed Penelope Cruz to take part. As an aside, Pilar Estravados actually was a character from a swigatha – but not this one; she appears in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.
When Poirot revealed the solution, both in the book and in the 1974 film, there was a wow factor: readers and viewers realise they should have seen it coming a mile away, but somehow didn’t.
The denouement in this film, however, has no wow-factor, because the predominant reaction is: “How on earth did he work that one out?” Too many of the characters and their motives are undeveloped and clues are not properly explained.
The dilemma then for Poirot is whether to let them get away with something that is as justifiable an act of revenge as could be imagined. His mantra, however, had always been that once you have open your heart to murder, and get away with it, you will most likely do it again, if only to prevent the truth coming out.
In the book, he propounds two solutions and leaves the decision as to what to tell the authorities to M. Bouc, his partner and the Director of the Line. In this film, on the other hand, he tells the killers that his conscience will not allow him to cover up their actions; they may as well kill him before the police arrive. He hands them a gun to test their reaction. Mrs Hubbard instead turns the gun on herself – and finds it is unloaded.
This reaction persuades Poirot that they are not really killers, so he propounds his alternative solution to the police when the train finally arrives at Brod station. He then leaves the train, only to be apprehended at the station by a British diplomat who begs him to help investigate a death on the Nile.
I fear a franchise coming on…
… but I don’t think Branagh’s efforts justify it. It’s a decent enough film, and I have a huge respect for him as actor and director, but the whole point of a swigatha is the who-dun-it bit: the unusual setting, a mysterious, impossible murder, clearly-delineated clues and suspects, and a famous detective who makes sense of it all.
In this case, the individual suspects and clues were not clearly-delineated at all, and by the end I don’t think most of the people in the cinema CARED who’d dun it. For an adaptation of an Agatha Christie book, that just isn’t good enough.
On the bright side, Agatha Christie would have loved Branagh’s moustaches.