Random thoughts on the new Murder on the Orient Express film

***SPOILERS for Murder on the Orient Express and Curtain***

I came into the theatre this evening full of hearty pessimism. This was less to do with consternation at Branagh’s moustache and more to do with the fact that I have never yet seen a screen adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express that didn’t, in some way or another, annoy me greatly. I think the novel is terrific, and the Suchet audiobook is my favorite dramatization of the story. But evidently it’s quite a difficult story to adapt for the screen, and no matter how beautifully shot or how great the actors are, the scripts always make me want to tear my hair out. So it was with the greatest of skepticism that I approached the new film.

My own commentary on the film will be, first and foremost, from my perspective as a Christie fan and reader. There was, I confess, a good deal of wincing and cringing on my part. But there were also a few pleasant surprises. My overall impression was a general and complacent “meh.” Here I will present a stream of random, muddled observations, great and small…

• The film opens in Jerusalem (rather than Syria) with a strangely comic tableau at the Wailing Wall, of all places. Poirot refuses mismatched eggs and then goes on to dramatically hold forth concerning a relic robbery involving, as suspects, a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. It sounded like the start of a bad joke, and it kind of came off as one, too. Here, also, we are introduced to Poirot’s “weaponized” cane, with which he would go on to stop baddies, break open doors, and do heaven knows what else with. *scratches head* The overall effect of this opening is to give the viewer the impression that they’ve signed onto a rather light-hearted romp, which seems to me a weird thing to do for Murder on the Orient Express. The film goes on to get rather muddled in the middle with Poirot’s interviews, finally slowing down to a snail’s pace from the final denouement onward.

• Branagh manages a pleasant sort of French-sounding Belgian accent. Christie is funny on this point; she never describes Poirot as actually sounding Belgian, nor does she mention any familiarity on his part with the Flemish language. The whole effect he presents to others is “French.” Too much Flemish would be a mistake, but I think Branagh manages the accent acceptably.

• Monsieur Bouc, who despite his name does not sound very Belgian or even French, consorts with a prostitute. An elderly man appears in the room and Poirot asks him if he also is a prostitute. WHAT? Poirot is eccentric, but is supposed to be extremely polite. His curious rudeness continues when first meeting MacQueen in the compartment they will initially share.

• When Poirot meets Mary Debenham, who is decidedly more chit-chatty than her book counterpart, he shows off with a few more deductions a la Sherlock Holmes, divining where the girl came from as well as her profession. For me, this is a supreme no-no: you do not make Poirot into another sort of Holmes. Christie’s character is observant, but he doesn’t give his hand away by laying out an acquaintance’s life history at first meeting like Holmes does. They are very different detectives.

• Poirot giggles like a ninny while reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I was not impressed at Poirot giggling… and giggling at that particular book? However, I found myself vaguely pleased, as a Christie reader, that Poirot was reading Dickens, because he does. (He actually says so in the book Murder on the Orient Express, which is how he knows that “Mr. Harris” would not show up.) One also wonders if the book wasn’t chosen as foreshadowing in which Poirot is, in a later moment of willing and deception-laden self-sacrifice, supposed to be a sort of parallel of Sydney Carton.

• I actually liked how that famous line about Poirot not liking Ratchett’s face was set up in the script. The line did not appear at all in the 2010 adaptation. Branagh’s Poirot frames the comment in terms of knowing, from long experience, what he does and doesn’t like, and pointing out that he realizes Ratchett is a criminal and therefore does not wish to take his case. In a way, I felt that this made Christie’s original line seem a little less arbitrary.

• Bouc begs Poirot to take on the case, suggesting it will be easy for him to look around, get interviews, establish the passengers’ bona fides, and reach the solution. But in Christie’s novel, the interesting point to Poirot is that it is impossible to determine the passengers’ bona fides on the train, since they’re cut off from everyone in the snowdrift.

• The introduction of racial issues seemed a little too forced in this script. Now, if they had used that later on as commentary on the widely-varying personages and how such a variety could have come together only in America– thus shedding light on the mystery’s solution– that might have worked. But as my memory serves… they didn’t.

• Katherine? Katherine?? What the.

• Apart from anything actually murder-related, everyone’s kind of weirdly violent. The missionary is violent. Arbuthnot is violent. MacQueen is violent. Poirot is violent. Ratchett keeps pointing his gun at people for the fun of it, or something.

• Speaking of the missionary, why oh why is the name of Pilar Estravados lifted out of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and plopped into Murder on the Orient Express? Is a Spanish nurse thought to be more exotic than a Swedish nurse? Whatever the reason, I will admit to appreciating this role far more than the Greta Ohlsson of the 2010 episode. She came across as unsympathetically smug and was a terrible exegete to boot.

• Likewise, I liked this film’s Mary Debenham much better than the self-righteous, “You must call stabbing a man to death a positive good and right thing or else you’re a mean judgy-head because of my Feels” character of the TV adaptation. Overall, this film’s characters had a lot more humility and were less hell-bent on self-justification at all costs. Like the book, it makes it easier to sympathize with them when the reader (or viewer) is gently shown that people driven crazy by grief can sometimes carry out horrible vengeance. Recognizing this murder as one more terrible tragedy in a long line of terrible tragedies is more effective than the perpetrators screaming at Poirot, in true 21st-century fashion: “Accept what we did as right, you hater!”

• Similarly, let’s talk about Poirot’s “growth” or change as a character. Both the film and the TV adaptation present a Poirot with an extremely simple concept of right and wrong, and by the end he realizes that life is actually complicated. I know that screen versions must differ from books… but it’s just not what I get from the books. There is a reason that so many fans felt that Suchet’s Orient Express contained his least Poirot-like dialogue. Poirot does have a firm moral compass, but he has never been oblivious to human psychology, unsympathetic to suffering, or hitherto unfamiliar with complex situations and murky waters. Strong morality does not equal naivete and it facilitates, rather than impairs, sympathy. What’s more, Christie works in a plethora of special contingencies that do not allow the reader to make such bald, radical statements as: “Poirot just let twelve murderers go free” or “Private vengeance is obviously justified if you feel really strongly in your heart that it’s right.”

• There are a few times that Branagh’s Poirot quotes other Poirot novels. There are two quotes from The Mystery of the Blue Train: “My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” Also, there is a close approximation of: “You tell your lies and you think nobody knows. But there are two people who know. Yes– two people. One is le bon Dieu– and the other is Hercule Poirot.” But perhaps the most interesting quote was lifted from Curtain. Poirot, murmuring to his mysterious Katherine photograph, says: “I have always been so sure– too sure… but now I am very humble and I say like a little child ‘I do not know…’ It’s one of Christie’s most beautiful Poirot quotes, written to Hastings and read after Poirot’s death. My one quibble here is what Poirot means when he speaks to the photograph; I forget where exactly in the film this happens– does he know who the murderers are at this point and is contemplating what would be the right action to take? If so, then the meaning of this quote is ironically the exact opposite of its meaning in Curtain. In that story, Poirot shoots and kills a dangerous man who gets others to murder for him, and is contemplating whether his actions could be considered justified, since he has saved others by the desperate deed. BUT, he is not willing to let himself off the hook so easily. He will not say, with swaggering confidence, that he definitely did what was right. Rather, he has humility– considering the deed, at best, a lesser of two evils– and entrusts himself to God’s mercy. In other words, the book quote is about not being too sure of yourself when you’ve just murdered someone, even someone reprehensible. In the film, the book is about Poirot not being sure whether or not to take a firm line with people who have just murdered a reprehensible someone.

• My husband Alex asked me: “Is there anything that Branagh revealed about Poirot’s character from Christie that Suchet hadn’t done?” There was one thing that I noticed and liked a lot– Poirot interviewing the princess’s maid in German. Poirot speaking German, I thought, was great to see. His knowledge of the language helps him solve a clue to a different character’s identity in the film, not unlike Suchet’s Poirot does with the German brother and sister in the episode The Clocks. I love examples of Poirot the linguist.

• Instead of the murder weapon being hidden in the sponge bag quietly and inconspicuously, as would be sensible, Mrs. Hubbard gets stabbed with it instead. In the film, this is solely to try to distract Poirot and throw the blame off the person he is currently interviewing. But is anyone seriously supposed to believe that the murderer would dispose of his weapon by stabbing someone with it…? The moment came across as weird.

• Speaking of Mrs. Hubbard, why does she always seem to get re-written as a vamp instead of as the ridiculous, over-fond mother? In that capacity, she alone could suffice for comedic effect when it’s needed, but recent adaptations don’t use Christie’s own humor here, and I wonder why. Instead, Mrs. Hubbard just comes across as a little cheap. “There was a man in my compartment!” “Are you sure it was a man?” “I know what it feels like to have a man in my room.” Those lines are used in the TV adaptation and basically lifted verbatim from that adaptation into Branagh’s film.

• The silly moustache guard… a tribute, I suppose, to Albert Finney’s Poirot. Hmm.

• In general, I was not pleased with Poirot’s deductions. There is not a lot of “fair play” with the audience.

• Okay, time for something else I thought was well done. There is something I was hoping to see in this film version that I thought would be a simple and effective way to pump up the emotional drama, and they did it– Daisy Armstrong flashbacks. Christie does this in her books as well. I can’t be the only person who tears up when reading of how much the members of the Armstrong household loved Daisy and the other Armstrongs. The idea that John Armstrong had initially written to Poirot for help with the case before he committed suicide in despair was also an interesting addition to the film’s storyline.

• “M. Bouc can lie. I cannot.” Um, sure you can. You’re Poirot, not George Washington. You love lying, in fact. It is an art form with you. I’ve heard it from Hastings himself.

Overall… the film was a pretty strange experience for me. I am not such a Christie purist that I refuse to accept, in dramatizations, any departures from the books at all. Switching between mediums is a tricky business, and I’m sure that much thought and discussion went into the ideas used. All the same, it didn’t click with me. If Christie didn’t write it, it might be okay to use in an adaptation; but if I can’t imagine her having written anything like it, I’m probably not going to approve of this or that choice.

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Poirot, Jeeves & Wooster

Now that I’ve watched through the Jeeves & Wooster series several times and read a number of the books (all highly recommended), I feel vaguely qualified to do a bit of comparing and contrasting between it and Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

It seemed a logical move. After all, the two series do have several rather notable things in common. Here’s some listage for you.


Compare…

• Both were produced, in the late ’80s- early ’90s, by Brian Eastman.
• Both are heavily defined by some excellent Clive Exton scripts. He adapted well and maintained quite a lot of the original authors’ dialogue and atmosphere, to the lasting satisfaction of hard-core fans. Speaking of which…
• Both series feature source material from 20th-century British authors that are known to be #1 in their genre. Not just close, but actually at the very top. You don’t get more superlative than Christie in mystery and Wodehouse in humor.
• The title character actors in the two series– namely, David Suchet, Stephen Fry, and Hugh Laurie– are unquestionably some of the greatest talents England has ever seen fit to put on screen. And they all do great accents. 🙂
• Gorgeous sets, gorgeous locations, gorgeous clothes. All the great visuals of well-done period drama. Not to mention snappy theme songs.
• Eastman deliberately infused both shows with a cultivated domesticity that further endeared the characters to the viewer. There is an unmistakable “family” atmosphere at Whitehaven Mansions and Berkeley Mansions.
• Likewise, the shows are quite family-friendly, remaining consistent with the original authors’ material.
• The original stories which form both series include bachelor gentlemen friends sharing a flat and moving in more-or-less upper-class English society. One of the pair is super-intelligent, sartorially impeccable, and great at solving problems; the other is pleasant but not terribly bright, and serves as a frequent stooge and an admiring chronicler of the tales. This is very “Sherlock Holmes” in setup, but in both cases, the authors subvert things in their own ways: Christie makes her brainy cove an eccentric Belgian, while Wodehouse makes his “hero” the servant.

Contrast…

• Brian Eastman made a deliberate decision with Poirot to not include the character of George in those early episodes. This was entirely because he was working on Jeeves & Wooster simultaneously, and didn’t want another series with a valet! This led to greater emphasis on the character of Miss Lemon instead. Another result is that Hastings (patient soul that he is) ends up performing a number of minor tasks that you might normally associate with a valet, although he isn’t really employed in that capacity– paying cab fare and tips, helping with the jacket, nabbing drinks, and so on. To contrast Poirot’s actual valet, George, with Jeeves– it is clear that although George is a sort of paragon in his own way (he must be to come up to Poirot’s standard), he doesn’t possess nearly as much imagination or intelligence as Jeeves. Still, in the books at least, George is instrumental in helping Poirot with some of his cases (“The Under Dog,” “The Lernean Hydra”).
• Because Eastman produced, and Clive Exton scripted, ALL of Jeeves, there is greater consistency in the feel of the shows in many respects. The fact that it ran only four seasons would also be a contributing factor. Poirot, on the other hand, spanned some 25 years, with various script writers and others dealing with production. On the other hand, Jeeves & Wooster has a tremendous inconsistency in casting; Fry and Laurie are in every episode, but nearly every other important character is played by multiple actors, which can result in very confusing viewing. Only rarely in Poirot is a different actor cast for the same role (e.g. Vera Rossakoff). And Suchet’s consistency in the role over a 25-year-span is impressive, to say the least.
• There are some locations shared in common, as is typical in British period drama. Halton House, for example, appears in The Labours of Hercules as well as “Bertie Sets Sail.” Yet there isn’t quite as much location overlap as one might expect. Since Jeeves & Wooster leans “1920s” and Poirot is set firmly in the 1930s, and careful decisions were made regarding period architecture, there is some significant divergence here. Including…
• Although we often think of Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries in an English country house setting, it seemed to me (correct me if I’m wrong) that Jeeves & Wooster takes us out into the country more often, despite Bertie’s preference for the metrop, while Poirot’s cases were quite often right in the city. Obviously there are a number of exceptions. But this may be because the Jeeves stories generally revolve around Bertie’s family and friends, many of whom are extremely rich and live in these huge country houses.
• If we are contrasting Hastings with the character of Bertie Wooster, we will find that Hastings is, understandably, not nearly so silly. Their manners of speech are quite different. In themselves, there are few great similarities beyond their time at Eton. But I’ve been wondering if Clive Exton didn’t deliberately (or not) imbue some of his Poirot scripts with Wodehousian moments. Hugh Fraser’s Hastings becomes known for his catch-phrases, including “I say!” But offhand, I can only recall Christie putting those words into Hastings’ mouth once– in Black Coffee! But Wooster is always dropping “I says” all over the place. Consider his very first words after meeting Jeeves. Another scene that suggests Wodehouse is at the beginning of The Incredible Theft, in which Hastings is lying on the couch, rambling about cubic “whatsits” and “thingummies.” Again, words never used by Christie’s character, but by Wodehouse’s. Exton’s adaptation of The Veiled Lady includes Poirot chastening Hastings for leaving him “in the soup”– never used by Poirot in the books, but a ubiquitous phrase Wodehouse uses for describing Bertie Wooster getting into trouble. And in Murder in the Mews, Poirot disparagingly asks: “‘The thing,’ Hastings? You think Poirot concerns himself with mere thingness?” The use of “thingness” is pure Wodehouse.

Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse– I don’t think you can possibly enjoy one without loving the other as well. Hercule Poirot is even mentioned in more than one of the Jeeves novels (Wooster being a big fan of detective fiction). For example:

“I mean, imagine how some unfortunate Master Criminal would feel, on coming down to do a murder at the old Grange, if he found that not only was Sherlock Holmes putting in the weekend there, but Hercule Poirot, as well” (The Code of the Woosters).

Christie, for her part, dedicated her Poirot novel Hallowe’en Party to Wodehouse.

“To P.G. Wodehouse – whose books and stories have brightened up my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.”

So, gentle blog reader, not only should you get watching– get reading, too! 🙂