The later seasons of Agatha Christie’s Poirot feature a darker, more introspective Hercule Poirot, played to perfection by David Suchet. Also the writers have adapted the novels and have included more complex and often meaner notes into the plots. Some have complained, arguing that Agatha Christie’s works are supposed to be escapist entertainment and gritty realism has no place in her archaic world. Along with these changes, Suchet’s interpretation of Christie’s world-famous Belgian detective, has also taken on more troubling and disturbing turns. These differences are very pronounced in the series’ take on Murder on the Orient Express.
The novel, one of Christie’s most famous, takes place on the famed cross-continental train. It gets stuck in a snowdrift and a corpse is discovered in one of the cabins. During the investigation, it comes out that the victim has some ties with everyone on the train. Also raising the stakes is the fact that the killer is still on the train among the passengers. Poirot, who is above suspicion as always, agrees to take on the case, throwing the killer’s air-tight plan off kilter.
Because of its deliciously convoluted plot and luxurious setting, Murder on the Orient Express has been filmed before: once in 1974 by director Sidney Lumet, with Albert Finney heading an all-star cast; and in 2001, the plot got a modern makeover with Alfred Molina as Poirot. The Lumet version of the film is considered a classic and is in keeping with the somewhat frivolous and fun nature of the story, despite its potentially tragic and dark undertones.
As part of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt, takes some liberties with the original and adding some context. Poirot has just solved another mystery, this time in Palestine. However, instead of the mystery ending neatly, his findings result in a violent suicide that plays out in front of Poirot’s face. Seemingly unmoved, he again is thrown into moral turmoil when walking through the streets of Istanbul, he witnesses the stoning of an adulteress. This violent act of mob law will be echoed again throughout the film, as will the moral ambiguity of moral relativism.
Unlike the Lumet version, the audience is not treated to grand entrances by huge film stars, wearing ridiculously fabulous costumes. The cast is peppered with some knowns: British actress, screenwriter and Virginia Woolf enthusiast, Eileen Atkins takes on the role of the Russian Princess Dragomiroff, Toby Jones (Infamous) plays Samuel Ratchett and arguably the biggest name, Barbara Hershey (Beaches) stars as the loud Mrs. Hubbard. The rest of the cast, a mix of Brits and Yanks, do well and perform much subtler work than in Lumet’s starry version where Ingrid Bergmann’s Oscar-winning portrayal competed with Lauren Bacall’s showy antics for screen time.
Also different about this particular look at Poirot is that he’s no longer the indestructible and inscrutable genius; he’s still brilliant, but he’s also plagued with a strange guilty that seems to manifest itself in his piety (he’s forever fingering the beads of a rosary in the solitude of his cabin). As opposed to his more boisterous performances as Poirot, this time Suchet has him literally scowling most of the time, barking at the others, rarely smiling. He’s terribly unhappy and unsettled by this murder and is (for once) unsure of himself. It’s an unnerving display for many who are used to Suchet affecting a sphinx-like smile as he unravels complicated plots. In Harcourt’s and Suchet’s hands, Poirot is full of self-doubt and neuroses. Too many this was a controversial choice. I found this to be completely appropriate for the savage murder that took place and the almost-Greek tragedy that contextualizes the plot.
This version of Orient Express isn’t fun. In fact, the ending is very disturbing. I hate to hark back to the Lumet version so much, but with his film there was a satisfying ending (loyal to the book), that ended on an upbeat note. Not so with this film: the solution of the film is faithful to the original source, however, it’s a very depressing take on the ending and we’re left questioning Poirot’s wisdom. Too often popular culture sanitizes murder to the point where an audience can watch it and be immune to its devastating effects: Christie’s books, usually armchair mysteries are guilty of this crime as well. With this entry in the Poirot series, Harcourt and company are trying to right this wrong by making sure the audiences aren’t drawn into the Whodunit without forgetting that the catalyst of this book was a murder. And for that reason alone, this movie should be commended.