I attended an opening night screening of Kenneth Branagh’s new film adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. The following day I screened Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film adaptation. On the third day I went and saw the Branagh version a second time, followed by a viewing of The David Suchet starring TV adaptation. A couple of weeks before the Films release I read the book, or rather Kenneth Branagh read me the book, what a nice chap. I have read snippets of several reviews and the people I attended screenings of the new film with had different opinions of the film then I did. This is a film that by the time it ended I had laughed and I had cried. When we met out in the lobby I was shocked at the reactions of some of my fellow moviegoers. After hearing their thoughts I wondered what theatre they had wandered into, as some seem to have seen a different film than I had. The most disappointing reaction was my brother who didn’t think it was very well made film, and thought it was very surfacey and he didn’t like the campy aspect of it. I noticed no camp other than perhaps the size of Poirot’s mustache but more on that later. The most fulfilling reaction was my Daughter Savannah who said it was really good! She is a typical Millennial, not a reader, not prone to sitting through movies in general, let alone a period film, and she had no knowledge of the source novel or indeed the character of Poirot going in. I love the film, It is my favorite adaptation of the book. I loved Kenneth Branagh’s Take on the character of Hercule Poirot.
First of all let me address the character of Poirot. I would not say that Branagh is my favorite Poirot, nor would I say he isn’t. I have been watching David Suchet play Poirot for more than half my life. In 2013 Suchet ended a 24 year run of playing Agatha Christie’s most famous creation when he filmed the final adaptation, becoming the only actor to have filmed the entire Poirot cannon. When I read Poirot Stories I picture Suchet, not only does he do an excellent job, but he has also had the good fortune to portray the character for nearly a quarter of a century. Is it any wonder that he should seem to be Poirot? At this point even if his performance wasn’t a faithful one, we would all still see it as Poirot. Of course it is a very faithful interpretation and that is largely responsible for it’s longevity and it’s universal acknowledgement as the definitive portrayal. I do not think that Branagh is going to replace Suchet in my mind as Poirot. But just as I have enjoyed various actors in the roll of Sherlock Holmes, there is room in my heart for more than one Poirot. I feel that Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes is the most faithful, Basil Rathbone, was my first Holmes, but there have also been other actors; Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Peter Cushing, Ian Richardson, Christopher Plummer, Nicholas Rowe, Ian McKellen all gave enjoyable performances in the roll.
Within our Friday night group, my Mother didn’t like Branagh in the roll she thought he was too masculine. I think she is having the same issue that many will have, in that Suchet is so ingrained in her mind as Poirot, that unless someone tried to play Suchet, playing Poirot, it wouldn’t work for her. In her mind Suchet was Poirot, she really wasn’t open to another take on the character. Branagh’s version remains faithful to the core character as created by Christie. There are changes, he is more active for example. He does not go anywhere near the action hero take on the character that Downey Jr. did with Sherlock Holmes. But he does give chase, he does defend himself. This is not true to the Suchet version of the character, I cannot speak to Christie’s character as I have not read all of the books and stories yet, and honestly a detail like that I might forget over time. In Suchet’s episodes I can recall Poirot shrinking from violence, this may be accurate to the story it is adapted from. But the character as written is a former policeman, one would assume, that he would when he was younger be able to at least defend himself. Branagh’s physicality is kept to a minimum. There are two scenes once Poirot is on the train, where something that you might consider action oriented occurs, neither of these are in the book, Neither of them really alters the plot of the book though, and they both serve a purpose. They add drama and flavor and tell us things about the characters. I imagine they are also there to liven the film up, add a little burst of energy. The reality of the modern film business is that you need to make a film that people will be entertained at and that will feel exciting. I don’t feel they went overboard in that regard at all, but it is certainly a change from the book.
I think that Suchet’s Portrayal is the most faithful to Christie’s text, but I also believe that like all great characters Poirot is open to some interpretation, that a film is an adaptation and in order to breathe it has to become it’s own thing. There are things like the color of his hair, which Christie maintains is black, hinting to the fact that he dyes it to maintain the color, a nod to his vanity and fastidiousness, a core characteristic. Branagh has decided not to stick with that, he allows the gray in his hair and moustache. And you know what, that’s OK. Unless you are a Poirot die hard who cannot allow any variation from the text to exist, you probably wouldn’t even know that was one of his quirks. He has plenty of quirks, and Branagh chooses some to display and others not to bother with, but he is recognizably Poirot. Some might say that is too big a detail, his hair always being black, to the extent that it’s obvious he is so vain that he dyes it is too critical a detail to leave out. Well I would argue that the most recognizable physical attribute of Poirot is his Mustache. A Poirot without a mustache would it smell as sweet? I answer no! A Poirot without a mustache is not a Poirot, it is like the donut without the sprinkles, it will not digest.
If one wanted to get hardcore, wouldn’t we disparage the hell out of Suchet for his mustache then? Branagh’s which people seem to have a hard time with is more faithful. After seeing the 1974 version Agatha Christie said she was disappointed with the mustache Finney wore, she had described Poirot’s mustache as one of the finest in England, and used the word “Enormous” to describe it at times, and then Finney had this puny little thing. Well if Finney’s mustache was inadequate, than suchet’s is even more inadequate as it is smaller than Finney’s. But the point isn’t that Suchet’s mustache isn’t as faithful, it’s that each actor who takes on the roll needs to have some leeway to make it their own. Suchet did it so effectively that people now think that his mustache is accurate and Branagh’s is a wild and ridiculous exaggeration. The “fact” is simply not true, it is like the FOX news. Following the person who has played the roll for so long that they have become synonymous with it is a challenge. You must still play the same character but you must find your own take on it. You choose to demphasize or ignore certain elements, but highlight or emphasize others. Branagh plays up the OCD angle a bit more than Suchet (in a single story, obviously Suchet played the character 70 times, over his career he played up every aspect more than Branagh could in one film.) He also adds a depth that Suchet conveyed at times, but this felt like a more soulful Poirot than I was used too. One other comment about the mustache, it is big, but it seems bigger in stills than it feels as you watch the film, the point of it is that people will take him less seriously and underestimate him, thus making him more effective a detective. The character is supposed to appear ridiculous, at least to the unsuspecting characters who encounter him.
Purists will rail against changes from the novel, the two actionish scenes being the obvious complaints, but honestly I do not see how it changes the destination, it just adds some twists, ups the stakes, adds some thrills. Valid additions when making a film that you hope will be popular and sell tickets while entertaining audiences. Others will complain that Branagh changed a character from white to Black and also made him a Dr. rather than a soldier. Well the Suchet Film also changed the character of the Dr., In the book and the 1974 film he is not a suspect just a Dr on board from a different carriage. In both Suchet and Branagh’s version the Dr, is combined in as one of the suspects thus eliminating a role. There is a large cast of characters, this is a clever way to condense that number. Also the characters race, allowed for some other comments that were not in the book but added something positive to the film. A way to up the diversity, and hopefully make it more accessible to a wider audience. While we are on the subject of the 1974 film, it garnered 6 Academy Award Nominations, having seen it I have only one question… Why? After hearing some criticisms of the Branagh film, I want to go back to those people and say watch Lumet's lauded version. 1st you wanna criticize Poirot’s, Finney seems confused whether he is playing Hercule Poirot or Richard III. 2nd I heard the criticism that there were too many establishing shots or outside shots, one, I didn’t think that, two at least they were gorgeous shots. Lumet’s version as you watch the scenery out the window looks like rural England in a snowless winter. 3rd flat and uncinematic I heard, well Lumet’s seemed completely by the book to me. It’s boring, it’s drab, I found it hard to watch. Suchet’s version was very good, a well produced episode. But the critics seem to be saying my remake Lumet’s masterpiece...maybe so someone under the age of 50 could watch it and enjoy it. I found it appallingly bad.
Cinematically I again loved the new version. I thought the establishing shots were beautiful. I felt the shots throughout, of the train either racing through or stranded in the mountains, giving a sense of how cut off from civilization they were, the isolation and the rugged terrain. Establishing visually, that walking out or expecting help in a matter of hours wasn’t possible. I found it well paced, opening with a terrific conclusion to a case, also establishing the keys to Poirot’s character, the OCD, and the weariness of this man, who finds the imperfections of the world hard to live with. A couple of shots stick out as interesting and effective cinematic choices. The discovery of the murder is shot from a bird's eye view, I loved the long take, showing Poirot take charge, I liked the fact that it focused on the characters reactions and did not show the crime scene immediately. To me the reactions of the group discovering the body was more interesting than showing us the victim. I also very much enjoyed the long tracking shots outside the train following characters as they walked through the train, it gave a sense of the geography, and presented a lot of information in an interesting way.
I thought the shot composition was wonderful, there is a scene where Poirot is in his compartment and he has a monologue, the framing and the performance reminded me of Branagh’s Hamlet. I have to admit this is probably his best film performance since Hamlet. I came out of the film feeling he should be nominated for best actor. That will never happen, but in my opinion it should. I found his performance riveting. There is between two people at times a perfect understanding. Sometimes you find someone with whom you have a connection where the communication they are sending comes in clear and without any distortion. I believe that my admiration for Kenneth Branagh comes from that connection. What he sends out in his performances and in his direction is at the perfect frequency for my brain. Our brains must communicate in very similar ways. I believe that happens from time to time whether it is an artist or a interpersonal relationship, some people are just tuned to the same frequency as we are, when we find those people, special connections are made, in the case of artists it’s a one way connection, but those people because they communicate their art to us so perfectly, are the ones that become our favorites. They are also probably the ones people stalk, because the don’t have have the ability to realize it’s a matter of communicating on the same frequency rather than a special personal connection.
Overall I couldn’t be more pleased with the film. I thought it remained faithful to the plot of the novel, while still taking some steps into new and fresh territory, which for a veteran of the tale and its adaptations allowed it to remain fresh and engaging. It isn’t a slavishly faithful adaptation but it also doesn’t rewrite the plot. There is no point in making a new adaptation if you are going to use the same script as an earlier version, alternately there is also no point in adapting Murder on the Orient Express if you plan to change the ending, then call it something else. I think it does exactly what you’d want from a new adaptation, Some new twists and turns to keep you on your toes and off balance while ultimately staying faithful to the Novel. Likewise with Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot. Ultimately you will recognize him as Poirot, again what is the point of another adaptation if Branagh were to merely try and copy Suchet. It is vital that he create a distinct and yet in spirit truthful interpretation, a fresh take that reinvigorates the character, and for me he did. Box office returns look promising, critical reaction is on the low side and of the 9 people, including myself that I personally know who saw it, we are 5 thumbs up and 4 thumbs down. It will depend on the box office ultimately, but I would love to have a new Poirot film from Branagh grace the screen every two or three years. I think the difference in interpretation, the sticker shock if you will, will lessen with more exposure and become embraced for what it brings not what it doesn’t.