The trailer for the new Murder on the Orient Express film has been released. Various reactions ensued. There’s a lot of excitement, of course, at the prospect of Christie on the big screen again. There’s a heavily star-studded cast (not unlike the 1974 Finney production, in that way). But what stands out to me is the visceral reaction to the simple sight of Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot. A lot of longtime and hardcore Poirot fans are stunned– not necessarily in a good way. And yeah, okay, I’m one of them. I may have used the phrase “greying, tousled 21st-century hipster” once or twice.
And yet, I do want to be as fair as possible. Fans were bound to react with a great deal of indignation at the sight of another Poirot after Suchet’s 25-year span on the small screen. So utterly dedicated was he to the character, so very convincingly did he pull off the role, that it has become difficult to associate Poirot with anyone else. (Ustinov who?) I don’t think I personally ever really will. He really did seem to just waltz off the written page and onto the screen.
So let’s consider the written page– Christie’s own physical description of Poirot. Many fans are comparing the look of Branagh’s character unfavorably to Christie’s original. Others are comparing only against the Suchet interpretation, and although he’s famously faithful to Christie, there are still distinctives against which, from a more purist point of view, certain criticisms of Branagh would be somewhat unfair. You might say that this post is me trying to put a best construction on, against my own knee-jerk reactions. 🙂
Poirot is described for us, via Christie, as about five feet four inches tall, or “no more than” five foot five. Branagh seems to be somewhere between 5’9″ and 5’10”; Suchet is apparently around 5’7″. Neither actor is quite there, although Suchet is closer.
Christie often describes Poirot’s distinctive green eyes. Branagh’s are blue; Suchet’s are brown. Arguably Branagh is “closer” there. 🙂
But oh! the moustache! What great consternation was caused by Branagh’s eye-popping facial hair– definitely grey, whereas Suchet keeps a proper blackness. But I think what shocked people more was the flamboyance of Branagh’s. Having a big and flamboyant moustache is actually quite in keeping with Christie, as well as with the early 20th-century continental ‘stache in general. She has many ways of describing Poirot’s, so some variation is acceptable for the purist. But she does occasionally use words like “enormous” (e.g. Dead Man’s Folly). I even seem to remember something about the Christie estate expressing surprise at the time that the Suchet ‘stache wasn’t as flamboyant as it could have been, although they understood the reasoning of the creators of the show. And I think the decision about the ‘stache for Suchet, Brian Eastman, etc. really came down to a desire to not make Poirot appear more ridiculous than necessary. It’s true that in the books, the extreme moustache did contribute to many Englishmen’s contempt for Poirot and their view of him as ridiculous. But by the late ’80s, the character of Poirot himself seemed to have become somewhat of a joke– people didn’t take him seriously, which is why John Suchet initially discouraged his brother from taking the role. It became very, very important for the show’s creators, as it was for Christie’s family, that the character be taken seriously, and I do think that the moustaches they had for Suchet’s Poirot were the right choice as a result. Now that Poirot is firmly established on screen as the serious and well-rounded character that he is, thanks to Suchet, another actor can perhaps come along and demonstrate the flamboyancy aspect of it (although identifiable wax and pomade is still most in keeping with the books). And I think that Branagh really had little choice but to differentiate his Poirot from Suchet’s in various ways, for better or worse. So there you go…
A few other words about hair. My own biggest issue with the Branagh image is that in some of these early photos, Poirot’s hair looks too unkempt, and his centre parting goes haywire. It is also too grey, although one might make one small observation that way. Although Christie mentions more than once how “suspiciously” black Poirot’s hair is, and either hints or states outright that he dyes it, consider Hastings quote from The A.B.C. Murders on the subject…
‘You’re looking in fine fettle, Poirot,’ I said. ‘You’ve hardly aged at all. In fact, if it were possible, I should say that you had fewer grey hairs than when I saw you last.’
Hastings goes on to say that Poirot’s hair is “so much blacker” than when he saw him last. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that Hastings has seen Poirot with greying hair! But it’s true, we don’t actually see it on the written page (not until almost the very last page, anyway), so ultimately I come down on the side of grey hair being a no-no. 😉
Since we’re talking about hair, here’s one of my favorite descriptions of Poirot’s appearance from “The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest”:
To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendour of his famous moustaches– all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy. It was hard, at these moments, to take the little man seriously.
Poirot is always described by Christie as at least appearing to have a full head of hair, with a centre parting. In the pictures I’ve seen, Branagh’s Poirot just looks too 21st-century for my liking– not enough pomade, and at times downright tousled! So, what are we to make of Suchet’s Poirot on this point? As a matter of fact, a significant number of stage, screen, or artistically-rendered Poirots in days gone by are deliberately depicted with vanishing hairlines, contra Christie. Why? I think the most obvious answer is that, far more prevalent than the author’s description of Poirot’s hair is her famous description of his head— “egg-shaped.” Christie herself, humorously, wasn’t quite sure what an egg-shaped head even was. But since it calls attention to head shape, it automatically (at least to me) creates a visual assumption of some level of baldness.
For the overall effect in appearance, Christie describes Poirot as looking “positively exotic” (e.g. Dumb Witness, etc). Suchet most definitely wins that contest. He has mentioned in interviews that his Eastern European heritage has aided him in playing the roles of “outsiders,” as he “certainly doesn’t look like a typical Englishman.” I don’t really know what a typical Englishman is supposed to look like, but if I had to guess, Branagh (who’s from Northern Ireland) might be high up on my list.
For general body type, Poirot is written as a “small, compact figure” (The Labours of Hercules), “delicately plump” (The Big Four), with “a certain protuberance around his middle” (Evil Under the Sun). Although vain about his brainwork and meticulous about appearing neat, he has no illusions about being attractive to the opposite sex, and in physical appearance is only proud of his moustaches. Other physical descriptions of Poirot from Christie include “expressive eyebrows,” “tiny, fastidiously-groomed hands,” and “short, stubby fingers.” He is in the habit of tilting his head to one side like “an inquisitive robin.” He is attired in correct, well-pressed and symmetrically neat urban wear, has an English tailor (Dumb Witness), prefers his large turnip of a pocket watch, and indulges in bling like pearl studs (“The Under Dog”). Christie’s written character uses no spectacles, monocle, or pince-nez (Lord Edgware Dies). He wears tight patent leather shoes which are a regular source of discomfort for his feet and affect the way he walks. And he always wears a hat when outside and muffles up to the nines against any possible chill.
It will be interesting to see how much, or little, of Christie’s descriptions factor into the appearance of Branagh’s Poirot. I was not favorably impressed by the grey and the generally rumpled appearance he seemed to present. And I’m still thoroughly convinced that Suchet was the perfect Poirot, so much so that in whichever little ways his presentation of the man departs slightly from the books, it seems that Christie herself must have gotten it wrong! That bias of mine has to serve me as a reminder that Branagh, great actor that he is, does deserve at least some leeway.
We’ll see what we shall see…