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Murder on the Orient Express Is a Spectacular Massacre of a Classic

Kenneth Branagh is far from perfect as Hercule Poirot. But this adaptation of Agatha Christie's beloved mystery novel has its sublime moments.

Nicola Dove / 20th Century Fox

Adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and stories for the screen constitute an enormous genre. The first movie came out in 1928, the first TV show in 1937. Christie’s detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are the most frequent heroes of these adaptations. The series Agatha Christie’s Poirot ran on the British channel ITV from 1989 to 2013, starring David Suchet in every single one of its 228 episodes, many of which were feature-length or in multiple parts. For my entire life as an Agatha Christie devotee, Suchet—with his Mephistophelian eyebrows, prim mustache, and aquiline features—was Poirot. A hundred nights curled up on the sofa with my sister; a hundred brittle heiresses protesting their innocence; a hundred perfect endings: Suchet was there for them all.

Now, Kenneth Branagh has cast himself as the detective. Murder on the Orient Express is a new version of a very famous mystery, repackaged as a splashy movie for the 2017 holiday season. The cast is superlative. Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, and Derek Jacobi are its megastars, while the second tier boasts Olivia Colman, Leslie Odom Jr., and Marwan Kenzari, the future “hot Jafar” of the new Aladdin. We see each fine actor through the windows of the eponymous locomotive, as sweeping, luscious shots establish a unity of time, place, and action (1930s, train, murder).

Poirot is on vacation. He manages to get a spot on an unusually crowded luxury train from Istanbul. The train and its aristocratic passengers chug along happily until knocked off their tracks by a snowdrift in Yugoslavia. By night, somebody kills an American passenger by the name of Ratchett in a frenzy of uneven knife blows. Weirdly, his door was locked. Whodunnit? The rest of Murder on the Orient Express sees Poirot unspool the mystery with his famous little gray cells. The train setting makes it vintage Christie: It is even more confined than the traditional “house party at a country manor” murder-mystery.

Branagh has faced several large challenges in constructing this film. First, Agatha Christie fans are rabidly purist snobs. Any changes he made were always going to come under fire. Second, the 1974 Sidney Lumet version was already very, very good. Third, Murder on the Orient Express contains the best-known (and, relatedly, the most unusual) solution to any Agatha Christie story: It will not attract many viewers who do not know it, at least at first. And fourth, Branagh is not Belgian or in any way obviously suited to play the iconic role of Poirot.

This last challenge is the most important. Other actors than Suchet have taken up the mustache before. Charles Laughton was the first to play Poirot, appearing onstage in a 1928 production of Alibi. Peter Ustinov is Suchet’s best-known predecessor in the English-speaking movie world. (Rosalind Hicks, Agatha Christie’s daughter, allegedly exclaimed in a rehearsal, “That’s not Poirot!”, to which Ustinov replied, “He is now.”) Kōtarō Satomi voiced Poirot in the Japanese anime Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple (Agasa Kurisutī no Meitantei Powaro to Māpuru).

Each of these actors followed Christie’s characterization of Poirot. That personality is exacting, egotistical, and femme. He is sentimental about vulnerable young women, but otherwise unforgiving and cynical. He refers to himself in the third person as “the great detective.” He speaks Poirot-ese, a combination of French idiom and English exclamation with pointed little asides, exemplified by this passage in the story “The Adventure of the ‘Western Star’”: “‘Ah! la la,’ he observed, returning. ‘Histoire des femmes! The good husband, he hit the nail—tout de même, but he was not tactful! Assuredly not.’”

Kenneth Branagh does not exactly respect the Poirot archetype. Notably, he converts Poirot’s fussiness (which, to be fair, could come across as homophobic in the wrong hands) into obsessive compulsive tendencies. Instead of endless mustache-grooming, we see Poirot straightening others’ ties and fixating on symmetry. But in so doing, Branagh subtracts all the femininity from Poirot’s character, which in Suchet’s performance felt key to his insight into the clumsy masculine criminal brain.

All the cynicism has also been washed from Branagh’s Poirot. The movie is, at points, downright corny. Cheesy strings swell as a young man observes of the detective, “It’s as though you see into their hearts.” This Poirot does a lot of hugging. He’s a man full of emotion, even righteousness, but none of the great detective’s disdain. These choices make the new Poirot more endearing, but less distinct and, ultimately, less interesting.

Branagh has a controversial history of adaptation behind him. He has directed several Shakespeare plays for film, including Henry V and Hamlet. Kate Winslet’s turn as Ophelia was wrenching, but Branagh as Hamlet wore literal black turtlenecks. Lloyd Rose was right when he called it “the film equivalent of a lushly illustrated coffee-table book.” But Branagh’s worst adaptation is undoubtedly his Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which butchered a perfectly good Gothic plot. Branagh’s screenwriter called it “the best script I ever wrote and the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”

Branagh’s over-the-top directorial style, however, finds its perfect expression in his new Murder on the Orient Express. Although his embodiment of Poirot is far from perfect, the film is very pretty. Great attention has been paid to the landscapes and environmental details. When Poirot gathers all his suspects together to explain how the murder was done, our twelve characters are arranged at the table like disciples at The Last Supper. When Poirot finally disembarks from the Orient Express, we see him beside a foreshortened railway track of painterly composition that looks very specifically derived from Camille Pissarro.

The painterliness of this new Murder on the Orient Express connects to a principle animating its plot. All Poirot stories hold that the truth is beautiful. But in this story, truth is not the same as certainty. “There was right, there was wrong, now there is you,” Poirot says. The stylized gorgeousness of this movie lends it the air of a Romantic painting, which in turn draws out a more complex, contemporary view of justice. Beauty is truth, Poirot tells us, but the truth is not always simple.