As I waited for the house lights to dim, the little old lady sitting next to me decided to strike up a conversation. She asked me giddily if I’d read the book; I told her that I had. She replied that she’d read all the Poirot novels. The lady then asked me if I’d seen the other versions; I told her that I’d seen the ’74 Lumet film. She replied proudly that she’d seen it in 1974 (unlike yours truly, who has only had the pleasure via slightly shoddy ITV reruns); more than that, it seems she was also in possession of the 24-disc David Suchet boxset. This truly thrilling repartee continued for some time, but a rather more absorbing line of thought had already derailed my full attention: why would two individuals (and indeed, what seemed a whole theatre-full of people) sit down to see a movie whose end they knew perfectly well? Why would one wish to see such a film – a whodunnit of all things?
I suppose such an experience is fairly akin to reading history or biography. In history, one knows who lost the battle, who won the war; in biography, it’s a sure bet that the subject in question will end up deceased. The questions, of course, revolve instead around the why and the how – we wish to understand more fully and more vividly how these ends were reached. So too, in essence, is the attraction of Murder on the Orient Express. How shall Branagh – and his stunning constellation of stars – fare in telling a tale told so many times before?
All the problems we expect rear their little heads early on. Branagh – at times, the very embodiment too much – has found the perfect enabler in Mr. Michael Green, the writer of this new adaptation. Take, for example, the decision to film on 70mm. A good decision, it would at first seem. We are treated to these beautiful, sweeping scenes – of sparkling sea and rolling hills and cityscapes. But all too often, a rich, vivid shot is digitally colour graded into those violent shades orange and blue – the peculiarly omnipresent palette heralded by some as the bane of 21st century cinema. Then, there are all the dramatic and unnecessary story points that do little more than create a sense of contrived tension: Poirot chasing MacQueen around the bridge; the stabbing of Mrs. Hubbard; more guns pulled than would befit a bona-fide western. This combination of too much style and too much story reaches its apex when the train grinds to a halt – not because of a heavy storm as in the earlier versions – but because of a tumbling avalanche that threatens to throw the train off its rickety little stretch of track – a shot whose aesthetics recall a video game much more than a 1930s period piece.
And yet, despite my best efforts to dismiss this film – as so many already have – I ended up rather enjoying it. I daren’t quite admit it (and, of course, I am hardly as well versed in such matters as my elderly neighbour) but still – this film may be my favourite Agatha Christie adaptation yet. Despite its tendency toward the worst excesses of cinematic acrobatics, Murder on the Orient Express (2017), brings something very visceral to the table, a kind of emotion which has been strangely absent from this story of so long. In the Lumet version, the murder case is, if I remember correctly, a bit of a jaunt. It is as if we’re invited along for an afternoon of tea and cakes, and a murder mystery party game to while away the time. The levity of this film is arguably reflected in the soft, cinematic gaze and the elegant, pastel colours with which this world is brought to life.
Not so Branagh’s film. It is hard-hitting; at times perhaps, it hits a little too hard. But maybe that was just what was needed. Murder on the Orient Express, although it is rarely represented as such, is a harrowing, deeply troubling tale of grief and revenge at its core. The ultimate emphasis of this movie lies not on the murder of Ratchett and the ingenious unravelling of the puzzle, but rather on the original murder that spurred on this crime of revenge. Poirot’s exchanges with all the suspects are brief, but almost all leave a lasting impression. Off the top of my head is the interview with Judi Dench’s Princess Dragomiroff. The princess begins aloof and assured, but slowly, quietly, the defences begin to break down as Poirot connects her to the Armstrong family. With the mention of the names of mother and child, the princess’s gives away her grief with a small flinch and a turn of the head – hiding her expression from Poirot and from us. With the mention of the killer, unhappiness gives way to a fit of rage. In this short scene, we are alerted to how one deed can devastate the lives of many others.
The film is most arresting in its handling of the flashbacks to each suspect’s past – in short, in it’s development of the why that I mentioned at the beginning of this review. It reaches its emotional climax when we see all twelve suspects gathered together – in a scene of shared grief over lost loved ones, and in a scene of shared atrocity in vengeance for those loved ones. Like the greatest tragedies, the film is fraught with uncertainties – no longer, at the film’s end, can Poirot claim that ‘there is right and there is wrong’ as he so blithely did at the beginning. The final note struck – ironically neither a striking frame, nor a climactic beat – was perhaps the film’s best. The voice of Michelle Pfeiffer – Linda Arden – sings softly as the credits begin to roll. The broken but beautiful phrasing creates a moment of intense, quiet power. For all its flaws, this version of Murder on the Orient Express ultimately embraces the story’s inmost core – a story of heart-breaking sorrow, and a haunting revelation of where such sorrow may lead.