How Kenneth Branagh and his facial hair brought Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot back to the screen and made a modern day detective.
2017’s Murder on the Orient Express wasn’t just a remake, or another adaptation of a classic text, it also undoubtedly was 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.
Though the piece remains set in the mid-1930s, with period production values and Kenneth Branagh’s protagonist sporting the most daring, rakish moustache you could imagine, everything about Branagh’s 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 adaptation is the fourth. The most well known is doubtless Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version which, much like this one, was littered with stars of the era. Lumet’s maxim was to ‘get the biggest star, and the rest will follow’, which he did with Sean Connery. At the time he was a few years post-James Bond, in an experimental phase of his career, and had recently starred under Lumet in The Offence, so he saw no reason not to jump aboard as Colonel Arbuthnot. Much as Branagh compiles a pretty stunning A-list cast for the modern version, Lumet’s gallery of stars still cannot be equalled: aside from Connery, and Albert Finney as Poirot, it had Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, even Ingrid Bergman who ended up winning a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for little more than a cameo. A remarkable ensemble.
No one imagined for some time in trying to equal or better it, though in 2001 a made for TV movie starring the underrated Alfred Molina as Hercule had a go, with a much lighter cast and lower budget, of course. Then came the turn of David Suchet’s Poirot, arguably the most beloved and legendary take on the detective, in ITV’s long-running drama Agatha Christie’s Poirot in 2010, a series which managed to film the entire collection of Christie’s Poirot stories over a 25 year period, still a pretty stunning achievement. Despite being a TV version of the tale, the show still managed to capture an array of emerging movie-star talent including Toby Jones, David Morrissey, Eileen Atkins and Jessica Chastain. By this point, Christie’s story would have been considered by many to have been comprehensively covered.
We live in an age, nonetheless, where nothing is considered sacred. Consider Christie’s works, with seventy Poirot stories alone, in a world where everything is on the market for franchise treatment. Christie remains the pre-eminent writer of detective fiction of the 20th century, a household name still almost fifty years after her death. Poirot, equally, is one of the most esteemed and famous detectives in 20th century fiction, not far behind characters such as Sherlock Holmes in recognition. For Brits, Suchet’s version is burned into our small screen consciousness; portly, balding, with a dark air of Gallic enigma, impeccably dressed with a curled, small jet black moustache. Many will never see past Suchet’s take, especially as he took the character across the Christie lexicon all the way to his grave.
Branagh’s Poirot, honestly, could end up the incarnation for a new breed of film fans. Finney only played the character once, and while Peter Ustinov’s memorable portrayal across the 1970s and 1980s in three movies (most prominently Death On The Nile, probably the second most famous Poirot story after Murder on the Orient Express, and the next Branagh adapts) and three made for TV movies is arguably Poirot for many people of a certain age in, distance will have again dulled the memory of his performance for many. Branagh’s ripe Belgian brogue, big bushy grey moustache, and all of the quirks the character entails, has engendered him to people new to Christie and the character.
Branagh 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 renowned. 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.
Poirot is written and portrayed as no less superhuman at times, though. This has become a keen trope in recent fiction: the detective who can see what no one else can. Sherlock popularised it but there are dozens of other examples; The X-Files’ Fox Mulder and his unerring ability to see the paranormal connections in front of him; Will Graham from Thomas Harris’ novels, principally around Hannibal Lecter, a criminal profiler able to almost literally put himself in the shoes of the most depraved serial killers (an idea homaged in Chris Carter’s Millennium, which Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal itself took a cue from, in that ‘pop culture eats itself’ manner). Storytelling is littered with the detective gifted of the kind of powerful understanding of events or circumstances outside of normal human understanding, principally because they’re so exciting to watch as they put the pieces together.
The difference with Poirot, certainly in Branagh’s take at least, is that by the end he reaches a fundamental point of change in how he understands and engages with the universe. Showing off his eccentricities from the get-go, the opening scene deals with Poirot attempting to get the ‘perfect’ eggs for breakfast, and later when treading in horse dung with one foot does he take a step back, then tread in it with the other. This odd behaviour, through Poirot’s prism, is all about equilibrium and balance; he claims to see the universe as ‘perfection’ and the reason he works so hard solving crime, understanding murder, is that such actions disrupt the natural order. In modern terms, just as Sherlock’s insight came from being supremely high on opiates of the day, Poirot would be classified as suffering from a quite extreme level of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Poirot cannot conscience a world where the balance is disrupted, and considers the very idea of murder akin to a regressive, animalistic action; indeed at one point Green has him describe man as being no better than ‘beasts’ if they kill another human. His little grey cells see absolutes, and he claims his instinctive insight is thanks to him being able to see cracks in those absolutes, imperfections in the pattern (like eggs not quite cooked correctly, or one foot covered in dung when the other is clean). The case on the Orient Express opens his eyes to a new possibility none of his previous cases, and a great deal of his life, had truly made him aware of: man (or indeed woman) does not act in patterns, or in absolutes. Some actions are dictated by the heart, not the head.
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.
This is one reason Branagh’s version of the story is a success. I won’t comment on how it tracks (pardon the pun) alongside other takes on Christie’s book (or the book itself) as I haven’t indulged in them (yet), but to a modern audience with an aesthetic of protagonists having a character arc, it works. Detective fiction of old often seemed to eschew their main characters undergoing a point of personal catharsis. How often did Christie’s other legendary creation, Miss Marple, experience the kind of revelation Poirot does here? When Columbo’s ‘one final thing’ happened, did he leave changed? This is what modern audiences demand, even from established literature with fixed characters and conceptual themes, and Murder On The Orient Express is no exception.
In this regard, it also explores themes which play into the modern social and political continuum. Race is the principle worry and concern of Green’s script. Branagh’s film, pointedly, makes the aforementioned 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 as in the book, but here 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.
Bear in mind the time and setting Murder On The Orient Express takes place. Much as updating Poirot as a character to the modern day could well result in losing the essence of the detective himself, its not unprecedented; the 2001 Molina-starring TV movie vehicle did just that, and arguably isn’t the most fondly remembered of the adaptations. 1936 was a powder keg of racial tensions and emotions; just before the Second World War, racial divisions and anti-Semitic thought was ripe, and Green brings it to the fore here through Willem Dafoe’s travelling professor, Gerhard Hardman, who very pointedly makes comments which suggest clear leanings to the ruling German Reich. Branagh makes sure his cast is ethnically diverse in order to sell how racial assumptions and prejudices of many of the ensemble here prove key to the mystery of who killed the victim.
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.
Class feels key to Derek Jacobi’s weathered old valet, Masterman, who you almost wished had a bigger part in proceedings. Jacobi is a long-standing collaborator of Branagh’s, appearing in several of his Shakespearian cinematic productions over the years, and its nice to see him playing against posh, bullish, aristocratic type as a chap from an ordinary background thrust into extraordinary surroundings. More could also have been made of Judi Dench’s Russian Princess Dragomiroff, who feels like the dying embers of an Imperial Tsarist Russia torn apart by revolution; much like Dench’s portrayal of a listless Queen Victoria around the same period in Victoria & Abdul, Dragomiroff feels like a woman out of time and place, even for the period setting here. Class lines aren’t balanced when the day is done in Murder On The Orient Express, and they matter not, much like race, to the final reckoning.
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 bore a new franchise for Branagh’s Poirot, there is unmistakable depth and humanity inside the confection of its exterior and its big-budget staging. It humanises the superhuman. Poirot didn’t need his eggs perfectly balanced next time around.
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