Anyone who has spent much time at all on this site can probably tell two things about me. I have an undiagnosed obsessive disorder that manifests in the form of watching the Simpsons, and I love detectives. I’ve a passion for detective fiction, particularly hardboiled detective novels and films, for quite some time, and it’s become possibly my favorite genre of story of all time. But, there’s one pretty massive blindspot in my knowledge of the genre. The works of Agatha Christie. I know she’s considered one of the towering figures in detective fiction, but other than And Then There Were None, which I love, I haven’t really had any experience with her work. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are two characters that I really feel like I should have a larger knowledge of, but just don’t. So, when I head that Kenneth Branagh was tackling an adaptation of what’s probably the most well-known Poirot novel, Murder on the Orient Express, I decided to check out the novel. Honestly, I originally considered doing a Film Library about the novel, this new adaptation, and the Sidney Lumet version from the 70’s, but the three stories are so incredibly similar, and the two films are such solid adaptations, that I figured it would be a really boring article, since I’d basically just be telling you about the same story three times. So, instead, it just let me go into Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express film with all the context I could possibly need. And, you know what? I thought it was a really solid film.
Murder on the Orient Express is one of the innumerable adventures of Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective with the reputation of the greatest detective mind in the world. The film begins with Poirot wrapping up a case where he seems to save the city of Jerusalem from a civil war. And, once that’s taken care of, Poirot receives word that he’s needed in England as soon as possible, cutting his vacation short. Luckily he runs into an acquaintance named Bouc who works for the Orient Express trainline, and he’s willing to get Poirot a ticket onto the train last minute. Poirot finds himself on the train with a weird assortment of characters, but intends to largely mind his own business over the three day journey. Although, that’s spoiled when Poirot is approached by an aggressive American who calls himself Ratchett. Ratchett claims that there are people who are threatening him, and he demands that Poirot help protect him. Poirot refuses, getting a bad feeling from Ratchett, and excuses himself to his cabin for the evening. And, that night, the train runs into an avalanche, and gets trapped on the tracks, getting the patrons of the line trapped for the foreseeable future. Bouc insists that the next station will be sending people to help them, they just need to wait it out, hopefully in peace and quiet. Which does not happen. Because the next morning Ratchett’s butler Masterman has found Ratchett dead, stabbed to death in his cabin. So, of course, people on the train begin to panic, and Bouc asks his friend Poirot to help find the murderer so that everyone will be safe until they can get out of the snowbank.
Poirot accepts, and he begins investigating the murder and interviewing the other passengers. He finds an abundance of rather obviously placed clues in Ratchett’s cabin, and also finds evidence that Ratchett was actually a gangster known as Cassetti who is a fugitive from justice after being involved in a kidnapping scheme in America that resulted in the death of four people, most of them members of a famous American aviator. So, armed with that knowledge, Poirot begins meeting the other passengers. There Mary Debenham the governess, Dr. Arbuthnot the former solider and current surgeon, Mrs. Hubbard the rambling widow, MacQueen Ratchett’s assistant, Pilar the missionary, Count and Countess Andrenyi, Princess Dragomiroff and her maid Hildegarde, Marquez the Spanish car-dealer, and Professor Gerhard the Austrian engineer. And, while interviewing them, Poirot continues to find a staggering amount of evidence which seems to point to a mysterious person in a conductor outfit. It’s not really adding up, and everything seems far too convenient, and as the crew arrives to dig them out of their snowbank, he finally starts to put it together. He begins accusing people, and even gets shot by Dr. Arbuthnot when he blames Mary Debenham. But, after all of it, he decides to tell the whole train-full of people what he thinks happened. There’s two options. Either some mysterious Mafia assassin sneaked onto the train and killed Ratchett, or else something far more elaborate happened. Poirot then takes them, one at a time, and reveals that he’s figured out that each and every one of them is in some way related to the Armstrong family, and the disappearance of their daughter. Poirot realizes that it wasn’t one of them who killed Ratchett, the man who escaped justice, it was all of them. They worked together, pulled the wool over his eyes, and killed Ratchett together. But, because he deems this murder justified, Poirot decides to tell the officials that the first hypothesis is correct, letting them all go free to continue their lives with a semblance of solace, while heading off for further adventures.
When I finished reading Murder on the Orient Express I immediately picked up some other Poirot books, and was filled with a curiosity about this film. I really loved the book, but I was a little confused about how it could be made into an engaging film. Because while it made for an interesting novel, I felt like seeing a litany of character coming into a room to be interviewed by Poirot, one after another, wouldn’t exactly make for a dramatic film. But, with both the 1974 film and this film, there was an answer on how to make this story an engaging film. Charisma, and lots of it. This film is stacked with a truly amazing cast, and well-known piece of shit Johnny Depp, and they all knocked it out of the park. Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot is obviously the front and center aspect of the film, and I think he did a truly terrific job, but part of what makes the film work is the skills of the supporting cast. They need to be unique and put a lot into their temporary screen time, and I think everyone did a great job. But, the real star of the show is Branagh as Poirot, and he’s a hoot. As I said, I don’t have the most experience with the character of Poirot, but I quickly realized that he’s a very odd character, a genius but full of weird affectations. He’s the only character I’ve ever encountered that I would legitimately use the word “persnickety” with. And Branagh nailed it. Yeah, there were some weird choices in the film that tried to make Poirot kind of a badass at times, which really felt out of place and strange, but overall I think that Branagh did a great job with the character, and I would really be interested in seeing more Poirot films with him.
Especially becacuse this film puts Poirot in a very interesting place. When I read the novel I was kind of taken aback by the ending. In the novel we see the twist ending, Poirot makes his decision, and things immediately end. The film goes on for a tad longer, but it really hits that point hard. They make pains to show in the beginning of the film that Poirot has a very cut and dry view of the world. There is good and there is bad. He is there to find justice and punish the bad. And yet, through the course of this story Poirot ends up finding a group of people who were so hurt, and so let down by justice, that they took it upon themselves to get some semblance of justice by killing Ratchett themselves. They became murders themselves to bring justice to a murderer. And Poirot doesn’t quite know what to do about that. He’s had such a myopic view of the world, and this case really teaches him that things aren’t necessarily all in black and white. There are shades of gray in reality, and it opens him up to this new world. The film introduces Poirot as a genius detective who is the best at what he does, but by the end of the film we see him grow, he learns more about the world, and about himself, setting him up to be an even better detective, and person, in the future. So I really do hope that we get to see some continuing adventures of this character, and every couple years get more lavish parlor room mysteries with a star-studded cast.
Murder on the Orient Express was written by Michael Green, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and released by 20th Century Fox, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk