Agatha Christie’s novels have become classics in the mystery canon—perhaps not for perfect literary prose, but most likely for the eccentricity and endearing manner of her detective protagonists, especially Hercule Poirot. He’s a stodgy, somewhat annoying little man, with habits and tics that hint at a struggle with OCD. But he’s also warm, thoughtful, friendly, and virtuous. He strives to bring order and peace to hurting people and broken situations.
David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot has rightfully dominated screens for decades: his mustache and mannerisms were always immaculate, his combined scrutiny and compassion perfectly blended. It’s hard to set aside Suchet’s masterpiece for a new Christie adaptation—even one as star-studded as Kenneth Branagh’s new production of Murder on the Orient Express.
This new film features Branagh himself as the beloved Hercule Poirot, here a double-mustachioed version of his classic self, with a little more fitness and flair than Suchet’s older, starchier Poirot. The film begins not in Syria, as the book does, but instead in Jerusalem, where Poirot tackles a rather public and theatrical mystery before plunging into the film’s main storyline. The question of why the storytellers insert this fictional, fantastical beginning is rather interesting; one can only suppose that they are trying to give some meat and character to Poirot, explaining his eccentricities and talents to an audience that may have never read Christie’s books. There’s something to be said, however, for Christie’s more muted revelations. She likes to slowly unfurl the talents of her protagonist—not flaunt them before a crowd of thousands.
But Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a typical Christie mystery. The novel takes place on a stranded train amid snow-laden mountains, with characters whose pedigrees and backstories are both elaborate and confounding. The victim, Mr. Ratchett, is here played by Johnny Depp with a touch of gangster. Judi Dench is the indomitable Princess Dragomiroff, Michelle Pfeiffer the gossipy husband hunter Caroline Hubbard (a slightly different iteration of her character than Christie wrote in the book—here more glamorous). Daisy Ridley (protagonist of the newest Star Wars films) plays a quiet, clever governess, Josh Gad a troubled, talented accountant and secretary to Ratchett. The entire ensemble is impressive, and brings a combined bleakness and savvy to their parts. Pair that with sweeping views of mountainous vistas and ancient cities, and you get a truly lovely film.
But Branagh’s Orient Express doesn’t feel like Agatha Christie—not really. It’s something I’ve been trying to puzzle out since watching the film. Despite the film’s rather elaborate beginning, the movie stays pretty true to the original novel (although it does insert some 2017-esque references to racism and injustice that are perhaps incongruous with the time). But even though it doesn’t splinter off severely from Christie’s original storyline, it does have a widely dissimilar thematic lens: mainly because Branagh’s film has all the splendor and pomp of a Shakespearean drama.
This isn’t surprising, considering Branagh’s past body of work. But Christie just isn’t Shakespeare (bless her heart). She wrote good old mystery novels. She wasn’t a literary genius. Her novels were cozy and solid. Her other beloved crime solver, after all, was Miss Marple: a quiet old lady who lived in the English countryside and loved to knit. Christie’s whodunits offered, for the most part, quiet family affairs and countryside intrigue—not the heroic antics of Sherlockian mysteries. That isn’t to say she couldn’t acquaint us with chilling, horrid personifications of evil—And Then There Were None is an unnerving, menacing book. But for the most part, especially in her detective works, the worst aspects of her antagonists were somewhat cushioned or softened by her crime-solvers’ sensibilities. Good overcame evil, tragedy was softened by justice; there were no Macbeths or Hamlets to be grappled with.
But in his Orient Express, Branagh inserts gilded splendor and sweeping considerations of good and evil. He offers us a grand set of characters, full of pathos and tragedy. And because Christie’s story is neither as grand nor as penetrating as Shakespeare, the staging feels slightly affected and over-the-top. Perhaps, having read and loved older versions of Poirot, it’s just too difficult to imagine the pompous detective dashing along a perilous mountain pass in chase of a suspect, clambering down a precipitous bridge in the effort. One suspects the prospect of such exertion and peril would cause the old Hercule Poirot to have a fit.
But all that said, the film is enjoyable and well-acted. It may not be a classic Christie, but it has its own flavor and polish. Perhaps this is a Christie for 2017 audiences, who are all enamored with Sherlockian stories and plots—thus we here receive a more dapper and athletic detective, a newer set of cinematic stars, and higher, more dramatic stakes.
Murder on the Orient Express is an enjoyable weekend movie to see in theaters—it will definitely offer food for thought, as the film grapples with the sordid and sad, as well as the dramatic and sentimental. It may not, however, be the movie you settle in to watch on a blustery winter’s night with a good cup of tea. For that, I will still turn to David Suchet.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.