Kenneth Branagh was brave to take on this classic Agatha Christie story. For one thing, he’s up against David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, a contest he could never win. But if everybody thought like that we’d never have had another James Bond after Sean Connery threw in the towel, would we? (On the other hand, would this have been a bad thing? Discuss.)
For another thing, the crits are all saying that Sidney Lumet’s 1974 movie version is the best one. Well, maybe. I know in theory that I’ve seen it but I can’t remember the actual experience, except that halfway through this new version I inkled whodunnit. Whether that was a resurfacing memory of Lumet’s film, or perhaps even of the David Suchet TV version, who knows? The fact is that Murder on the Orient Express has become a modern classic, so you don’t go to see it for the surprise outcome, just as you don’t go to see Shakespeare plays to hear a new story.
Or maybe you do, if you’re young enough. I remember as a schoolgirl going to see Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet. A kid in the queue ahead said to her companions: ‘I’ve seen this already but I won’t tell you how it ends’!
Be that as it may, the point is that Agatha Christie’s oeuvre has entered the modern classic canon and as such is destined for endless reinvention. As long as you’ve got the main ingredients of the genre in place you can’t go wrong. These are, in my view: a strong sense of style, a brilliant ensemble cast, stock characters, good production values, some new jokes and the odd updating plot tweak.
Branagh’s version ticks all the boxes. The style is sumptuous Art Deco with a bit of steampunk thrown in, courtesy of the gorgeously hefty locomotive and train business. The cast is stellar. You’ve got Johnny Depp doing a colourfully disreputable gangster, Judi Dench as a Russian grande dame, Michelle Pfeiffer a glamorous American Lady of a Certain Age, Derek Jacobi a humble valet, Willem Dafoe (possibly) a professorial German, Olivia Colman a mousey lady’s companion, Penelope Cruz a pious missionary and sundry other beautifully cast stock roles. The plot and characterisation are given a suitably modern twist with the casting of black actor Leslie Odom Jr as Arbuthnot. The joke that has the American characters referring to Poirot as ‘Hercules’ isn’t overdone, and I particularly liked the other little joke that Poirot, famous for loving the works of Charles Dickens, laughs uproariously when reading ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, the joke being that it’s not a funny story at all – it’s probably Dickens’ most serious novel!
My only reservation is that towards the end Branagh lets the ironic, campy tone drift into a kind of tragic grandeur, as if he couldn’t resist striving for Shakespearean gravitas, or at least Wallanderian gloom and doom.
But I liked it. Incidentally, speaking of tweaking for modern tastes, one early scene from the book (or so I have learnt from googling) that hasn’t made it into any of the movie or TV remakes is where Poirot and a few of the characters who subsequently get on the train first witness the stoning to death in Istanbul of a woman accused of adultery. The modus operandum of the train murder – spoiler alert! – echoes the manner of her killing.
Presumably Christie had some experience or knowledge of such an event, but it’s interesting that later versions of her story leave out that particular instance of savagery.
This review was first published in November 2017