The small screen seems to constantly be adapting Agatha Christie; there are miniseries, there are seasons upon seasons of Poirot and Miss Marple, there’s even a couple of Doctor Who episodes! The big screen not so much, at least not in the English speaking world (India and France seem to have an enduring love for seeing Poirot on the silver screen). That’s why I was surprised to hear about a Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express in 2015, particularly as Branagh himself would be playing the famed Belgian. In my head, Poirot has always been short, slightly plump and balding. He looked exactly like David Suchet (who played him for 24 years in the ITV series of the same name). Branagh is tall, blonde and has a charm about him that always seems to follow him into any role, it makes for a brilliant actor, but not one that I could imagine happily fitting into Poirot’s precise shoes.
Therein lies a problem.
Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most-loved of the Poirot novels. Not only that, it’s seen many fantastic adaptations over the years, including one in the long-running David Suchet series I previously mentioned. References to it are scattered through literature and television alike. It was likely that most of Murder on the Orient Express’ audience would enter the cinema already knowing the solution to the crime at the centre of the film. The question was, what did the filmmakers want to tell us that was new? What would hold the audience’s interest?
At least part of the answer seemed to be a very hammy interpretation of Poirot both from Michael Green, (the film’s scriptwriter) and from Branagh. It’s an idea that may have worked in an adaptation of another one of the Poirot books, but this is Murder on the Orient Express. The plot discusses the definitions of right and wrong, and what can drive perfectly ordinary people to commit a meticulously-planned murder. It’s not something that’s meant to have a main character who enjoys overacting and eating the scenery for breakfast. By the time Branagh shifts into a more serious mode towards the very end of the film when the solution has presented itself and he is confronting the murders, it feels like a break in character. He’s taken threats to his life and a murder pretty damn lightly, so it’s somewhat surprising that his character decides to suddenly take things seriously.
It’s particularly disappointing that Branagh’s Poirot is so over-the-top because his supporting cast is absolutely fantastic. Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Penelope Cruz and Olivia Coleman show why they are so critically acclaimed in their individual work with ease. Willem Dafoe and Josh Gad both vary between strangely comical, tragic and loathsome. Daisy Ridley is wonderful (as always) in her first outing on the big screen since playing Rey in Force Awakens, and Leslie Odom Jr. who plays her love interest is fantastically conflicted throughout the film. Johnny Depp’s character, being the victim, is only alive for the first quarter of the movie, but he makes the most of it, very quickly showing the audience what a slimeball his character is. All of the supporting cast was amazing, but it was Tom Bateman’s performance as Bouc that I enjoyed the most (although that might be because ever since I saw him in Da Vinci’s Demons, he has been a particular favourite of mine). More often than not, it was his character’s more subtle silliness that got the audience in my cinema laughing, while Poirot’s attempts at slapstick only elicited groans.
But while it didn’t cause such a vocal response, I think there was a bigger problem with the movie: the ending. At the end of the film, Poirot confronts his fellow passengers with the truth: they have all conspired and committed the murder of Samuel Rachett aka Lanfranco Cassetti, the man who ruined the lives of the Armstrong family by kidnapping and killing their two-year-old daughter. These are the people left alive after the subsequent deaths of nearly the whole family trying to get the justice they never received. Poirot then decides to let them go free, as he believes that they need to move on with their lives and that no justice would come from turning them in. He gives the officers coming to collect the body of Rachett at the next station a false solution and heads off to his next case leaving the train behind. It’s all very neatly wrapped up, complete with a bow at the top, however, neither the original book nor the excellent David Suchet adaptation gives such a clear-cut conclusion.
It’s certainly implied in the book that Poirot will let the murderers go, by his two offsiders offering to change their testimonies, but it is never explicitly stated. Better still, the Suchet version never reveals what Poirot says to the police, simply that he gives them a key bit of evidence, before walking away in tears, holding his rosary. These endings, in my opinion, are significantly more powerful. Murder on the Orient Express is set in a time where people still were hanged for murder and therefore looks at the idea of what this style of justice is worth. The life of one of these twelve? Two? All of them? The audience is given the same information as Poirot, but then it’s left up to them to decide, having received no answer from the story.
Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is significantly less powerful. It simply hands its audience an answer. No amount of dialogue about split souls or whether the twelve murders are “true killers” can bring back the moral discussion this film so miserably fails to have about what is right. Poirot decides that the twelve are justified, so the audience is left with the sense they must have been. It’s disappointing, given how interesting the film could have been.
That’s not to say Murder on the Orient Express isn’t enjoyable, it certainly is. It’s exceptionally cleverly shot, beautifully scored and as I’ve previously said, the supporting cast is amazing. It definitely made for a lovely Sunday morning, but it could have been something more. This could have been a film that engaged me long after I left the cinema as the TV adaptation did before it. I believe, as a filmmaker, that audiences are intelligent and should be allowed to make up their own mind about how they view a film, rather than being told how to think. Hopefully, the next big screen adaptation of a mystery will embrace that too.