Cakes on a Train

by Sonia Mitchell

Kenneth Brannagh travels in style on the Orient Express.
Murder on the Orient Express is probably Agatha Christie's most iconic work. It has Poirot, an enclosed murder environment and of course the train itself providing ready-made atmosphere. With a plethora of adaptations and parodies already available it wasn't crying out for any more, so naturally it fell to Kenneth Brannagh to make and star in a new version.

People who go to see Agatha Christie productions are divided into people who don't know the plot, and therefore need a satisfying mystery, and people who want to see an interpretation of a story they already know. Brannagh's version is mainly aimed at the second group - the mystery is secondary to the style.

Spoilers Follow.

The film is indeed very pretty. There are lots of little details about the train to linger on, the wide landscapes are well chosen and the lighting is very atmospheric. The characters really do interact with the train rather than moving through an interchangeable environment. It's also full of famous people doing their ensemble cast thing. In particular, Daisy Ridley lifts her scenes, while Johnny Depp makes a suitably crawly businessman that it's easy to wish bad things upon.

It would be somewhat disingenuous to adapt most of Christie's work without acknowledging race. This is, after all, an author who called one of her books Ten Little N****rs (it now goes by Then There Were None). However, Murder on the Orient Express is one of the stories that would be plausibly easy to have an all-white cast for, so it's good to see Leslie Odom Jr, a black man, playing one of the central characters. The opening scenes, too, feature a predominantly non-white Jerusalem which is by no means a given in these types of adaptations. Race isn't a central theme of the film, but there is at least a self-aware simplistic portrayal of racism as a Bad Thing and probably the sort of attitude held by terrible child-murders or proto-Nazis.

As a recent remake it's difficult to avoid comparisons with the BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None, shown around Christmas 2016. That too had a large establishment cast, but the absence of a Poirot figure and the longer running time (three one-hour episodes) allowed for a more leisurely exploration of motives and connections while still keeping up the tension of being in an enclosed environment with a murderer. Also it had Charles Dance being Charles Dance, against which Brannagh would look silly even if he wasn't wearing a giant comedy moustache.

I can't bring myself to discuss that moustache further, but it needed noting.

As a detective novel, Murder on the Orient Express is a two-parter. The initial reveal of an historic murder-kidnap and the links different characters had with the victims is very much a spectator event. The reader is not supposed to work these connections out, but to witness Poirot's deductions. The reader participation comes in working out what happened on the train to leave a man dead from twelve stab wounds.

The film struggles a little to deal with this dual mystery, and so the first part is breezed though as quickly as possible. Poirot seems to work out the connections of every suspect through intuition rather than interview and deduction. This ability is set up early in the film when he solves a case with a set piece that made my partner complain "he's not supposed to be Sherlock". Poirot attributes his seemingly impossible abilities to a need to have absolute order in the world, and therefore being disturbed and alerted by the disorders of crime. In practice, it allows for some very quick, handwavy solving of a part of the case that took a fair chunk of the book.

In a way this is an understandable choice; the presence on the train of so many involved people is obviously not a coincidence and to draw it out can feel contrived. However, it does change the tone of the film to be more of a single character study. Poirot is even given a tragic backstory and a degree of hand-wringing over the solution that pushes much too hard into sentimentality. A red herring train chase is rather unsatisfying and the denouement, when it comes, centre-stages Poirot's own anguish at the solution.

One of the few interesting choices Brannagh makes is to change the murder technique. Whereas in the book the characters draw straws for their time slot and never know who struck first, in the film they creep into the victim's room together and kill him together. This does change the nature of the crime but it also makes for much more dramatic viewing, that really uses the claustrophobic nature of an enclosed carriage well. It also makes the successful murder feel more plausible, with the victim actually being held down and outnumbered. This does necessarily remove aspects of the mystery but given Brannagh's choice to focus away from the whodunnit aspect, the scene works and the reveal is suitably effective even if not surprising.

An odder choice is the dropping of the jury image which underpinned the murder in the book. A rather stupid Last Supper-esq tableau instead implies apostles. Even in such a self-indulgent film this is jarring, and nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is.

Overall, this film is almost exactly what you'd expect. Aside from the murder scene it does little of note to the plot, and in fact removes some of the interesting parts of the book. But it's enjoyable to look at and the quality of the supporting cast is genuinely good, creating several memorable characters from the little they are given to work with. Some day in the future I could see myself happily putting it on in the background on a lazy Sunday afternoon and sitting down to watch the good bits.

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