*. I really didn’t like this one.
*. You may guess from my saying this that I’m an Agatha Christie purist who doesn’t believe anyone has the right to go messing with the canon. David Suchet (and certainly not Albert Finney or Peter Ustinov) is Hercule Poirot and there’s an end of it.
*. Well, as a matter of fact I am a Christie fan, and I do like the ITV adaptations of her Poirot novels starring Suchet. But I don’t mind productions taking liberties either. I’d be happy seeing this story done on a space shuttle heading to Mars. What I don’t like is what’s done to it here.
*. Let’s start at the beginning, which gives us a quick intro to Poirot the famous detective as he solves the mystery of a stolen relic from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Why such a particular mystery I have no idea. It all seems very silly, is a complete waste of time, and doesn’t involve much (if anything) in the way of the exercise of Poirot’s little grey cells.
*. In fact, the intro’s only purpose is to give us a new Poirot, one who has little need of little grey cells. Instead, this Poirot is yet another iteration of the obsessive-compulsive superhero who sniffs out crime by way of his preternatural ability to discern when anything has upset the order of the universe.
*. This isn’t Christie’s Poirot. That’s fine (though, personally, I am tired of this new breed of heroes who are all located somewhere “on the spectrum”). The only problem with it is that we can’t relate to or play along with such a detective. Clues? These aren’t really essential, and indeed throughout this film they are almost entirely disposed of or merely glanced at. We never really follow Poirot thinking his way through from A to B. Instead he just detects a disturbance in the Force and goes with his gut.
*. Aside from this we have to also note that it looks lovely. Lovely and big, being shot with 65 mm cameras that Branagh found gave a lush and immersive feel to the proceedings. This they do, though I don’t know if it’s a look that really fits with the story that much. We seem to spend a lot of time looking at the scenery, which is very pretty, and less time explaining what is going on.
*. Also in this introductory material we get to see Count Andrenyi give a ninja spinning back kick to someone in a bar. No, we’re not in the world of Christie’s Poirot any more.
*. After that it’s all aboard a train full of star cameos, with a nice mix of old and new to keep us entertained. The cast are in fine form, but the script does them no favours as they have very little to do. Poirot is the star of the show, to the point where he is even given a lost love interest he can moon over. Instead of being a bubbly eccentric he is now a world-weary moralist. That’s not a transformation for the better.
*. Is that too much? I think it is because it takes away from the intricate mechanics of the plot itself. Put simply, This Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a mystery anymore. It’s a character piece with a lot of flashy, distracting camera work and stunning widescreen photography.
*. So maybe “flashy, distracting camera work” is a bit unfair. There is one incredible long take as Poirot boards the train that certainly draws attention to itself but is remarkably well executed. Most of the other stunts, however, had me rolling my eyes, even though on his commentary track Branagh does do a good job of justifying them. The overhead shots, for example, were apparently inspired by Dial M for Murder. As with the fantasy-postcard scenery, I think a lot of it was just done to sugar-coat a movie that is basically all talk. No matter how good the talk, few audiences today want to sit through that. So mission accomplished on that score.
*. One trick I really didn’t understand was presenting the flashbacks in black-and-white. This struck me as unnecessary since we know they’re flashbacks. I wanted them to be in colour.
*. This version of Poirot’s moustaches got a lot of notice, but that’s what the “facial furniture” (as Branagh refers to it) was for. It’s not a classic Poirot look but I thought it was one of the few changes that was enjoyable. I think Branagh liked it too, as he shows it off in lots of close-ups and profiles to give the full effect. Why Poirot should get so many close-ups has little other justification.
*. What really let me down, however, was how poorly the actual nuts and bolts of the mystery were handled. I think a lot of people would come to this movie either having read the book or seen one of its adaptations or at least being familiar in some way with the story. If they came to it cold I wonder if they would be able to follow it. I don’t think I would have been able to. None of the essential points or clues are given any context, and the timeline and mechanics of the murder plot are left terribly vague. This leaves the big explanation scene at the end for Poirot to pull all his rabbits out of a hat. Indeed, he doesn’t even try to tell the story of the murder but just tells us whodunit (or who the killers really are) and then turns to his tortured moral verdict. And the denouement goes on for nearly half an hour! The montages at the end of the Saw movies manage to do a better, fuller job of explaining their kinky plots in under a minute.
*. I’m not a huge fan of the 1974 film but it does have a place in my heart for personal reasons. It made me interested in reading Christie. I doubt this film will have the same effect, though the box office was good and a sequel was quickly announced (Death on the Nile, introduced in the final scene here). In other words, Poirot has become a franchise, again (or “cinematic universe” as the lingo has it these days). It will be a Poirot for our time. Or someone else’s time. Not mine.