Arts and Entertainment

“Murder on the Orient Express” Reaches Beyond Its Inspiration

How does Kenneth Branagh’s new film adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” compare to Agatha Christie’s legendary novel?

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By Catherine Joh

I must admit I had my reservations while walking into the movie theater showing of “Murder on the Orient Express.” I had only recently read, and loved, the Agatha Christie novel which was adapted for the movie. Not only did I fear being disappointed by the film adaption, notoriously inferior to books, but I also worried that knowing the ending of a murder mystery might ruin the film. Considering the novel’s well-deserved infamy, I was curious as to how the film version, directed by Kenneth Branagh—who also stars as the lead, Detective Hercule Poirot—would handle filling Christie’s big shoes.

It seems that Branagh accounted for this, however, by opening the film with an entirely original scene set in the bustling and colorful city of Jerusalem. The film uses these few minutes, absent from Christie’s novel, to establish its protagonist as a ridiculous perfectionist with an obsession for balance and a rigid belief in the division between right and wrong.

Detective Poirot is first shown being comically picky about his breakfast (specifically, the perfectibility of his eggs). He claims to see “imperfection stick out like the nose on your face” and is so troubled by imbalance that when he steps into manure, he purposefully dirties his other foot as well to even it out. Thus, the movie introduces not only a new neurotic element to the famous detective, but instills a sense of humor into him as well.

When solving a particularly divisive theft (the suspects are a rabbi, a priest, and an imam) at the Wall of Jerusalem prior to his journey on the Orient Express, Poirot establishes a unique crime-solving style. In a long monologue, Poirot relies primarily on his understanding of human nature in order to pinpoint the culprit: he first identifies a plausible motive and uses it to anticipate the evidence, reversing the typical process. Furthermore, Poirot attests that, “There is right. There is wrong. There is no in between,” displaying great faith in his ability to differentiate between the two. It is an innovative effort on behalf of the creators of the film to introduce its protagonist as a genius with a great sense of justice, perhaps a more ethical and extremely French Sherlock Holmes. At the same time, such an effort sets the tone of the movie as the study of a human conscience mixed with comedic elements and modern day messages.

The film dedicates itself to presenting Poirot as a more human character than the enigma he was in Christie’s time. In the novel, Christie provides little insight into Poirot’s moral compass, primarily focusing on his determination to solve a tricky crime and the ingenuity with which he does this. The film, on the other hand, emphasizes how Poirot handles his idea of ethics, lamenting, “I see evil on this train.” This allows the movie to have a greater meaning than simply a murder mystery and gives Poirot a greater level of complexity (beyond that of a brilliant detective) than he had in the novel.

The film also establishes the reality of discrimination in 1930s Europe and supports this with greater diversity in casting. Leslie Odom Jr., of Hamilton fame, is an African American who plays the role of Doctor Arbuthnot; and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, who is Hispanic, plays the new role of Biniamino Marquez. Race is a theme in the film notably absent from the 1934 novel, and it reflects a modern influence. For instance, Dr. Arbuthnot relates the difficulty of becoming a doctor as a black man, and the reality that he might be blamed for the murder by the police, simply because of his race, is acknowledged by several characters. This new element allows the film to access more important themes and reflects the influence of persisting societal issues.

Wisely, Branagh seizes the advantages of the film medium by accentuating the movie’s visual elegance. The contrast between the bright, colorful, lively stations or cities and the more gray-scale, subdued aura of the train is a subtle yet powerful reinforcement of the train’s darker atmosphere. The experimentation with points of view, such as the bird’s eye view of the scene where the body of evil businessman Samuel Ratchett is first found, allows the film to emphasize the cramped and tense atmosphere of the train. Branagh’s use of shots through crystal window reflections create a funhouse mirror effect that emphasizes the lack of transparency aboard the train, drawing audiences in a way that the novel cannot.

Conversely, the screenwriting of the film instills a humorous and witty tone that perfectly mirrors Agatha Christie’s. Christie’s ironic tone throughout the novel is a significant part of its appeal, and while the film does a good job in capturing Poirot’s dry humor, it is Bouc, a reinvisioned character played by Tom Bateman, who provides much of the film’s comedy. A shameless hedonist (in his first scene, he is seeking a remote place in which to have a twenty minute “argument” with a prostitute), he serves as the perfect foil to Poirot’s astute character—a young man not yet disillusioned with the world. He seems an even better companion to Poirot than Christie wrote in the novel, accentuating Poirot’s professionalism while also bringing out his humorous side as Poirot frustrates Buoc with comments about the mystery such as, “If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

Considering the fame of the novel, much of the film’s success seemed as though it would inevitably rest on performance, rather than plot. This might explain why the movie’s cast consists almost entirely of heavy-hitting actors: Dame Judy Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Derek Jacobi are just a few of the huge names associated with the film. However, it is a somewhat disappointing ensemble cast, if only because in its excessive focus on Poirot, the film gives the other actors little time to fully distinguish their talent.

Despite their confines, the cast is still able to put on an impressive performance. The drama in the movie was greatly elevated, specifically in Poirot’s confrontation with Dr. Arbuthnot, where the latter confesses to the crime and shoots Poirot to protect his lover, Mary Debenham (played by Daisy Ridley) from suspicion. This scene, too, is original, and sharply differs from the more subdued and slow-burning nature of Christie’s novel. The film’s climax, Poirot’s confrontation with the suspects, in the conclusive test to their characters, has a far greater emotional appeal to the audience than the book. By stressing Poirot’s insistence that the world is black and white, the film makes his reaction to a totally in-the-gray situation compelling in a way that the novel is not quite able to.

While the film is unlikely to receive the same cult following as its novel predecessor, it is a refreshing take on Agatha Christie’s beloved novel. It is simultaneously able to give the story a new level of complexity as well as retain the suspense and charm of an old-fashioned murder mystery, and perhaps by those merits alone can be considered a success.