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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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 10:02 on 2018-01-09
Woo, welcome back Sonia! It's good to see you (er, read you) again.

Johnny Depp makes a suitably crawly businessman that it's easy to wish bad things upon.

Which, given what Amber Heard has told us over the past couple years, I suppose makes it an inspired casting choice in a deeply unfortunate way. :(

On the spoilery bits - spoiler-tagged for the benefit of folk who get comments via RSS:

I think part of the problem of contracting the first section of the story is that once it's become clear that there's an outright weird number of people with connections to the murder-kidnap on the train, the second mystery you identify stops being that mysterious. Maybe the actual process involved was obscured, but "group vigilante action" becomes the most plausible prospect at that point.

In the original book Christie had the advantage that readers had very specific expectations of this sort of detective story, which included the idea that there was one specific individual who did the deed. Raymond Chandler rages against the solution in The Simple Art of Murder precisely because he seems to feel that Christie has cheated in some respect; when he says "Only a halfwit could guess it" I think part of what he means is that the solution breaks the rules of the genre sufficiently seriously that it could only be guessed by someone who simply didn't grasp those rules in the first place.

Thing is, modern audiences are a bit more used to genre pieces which break major axioms of the genre in one way or another, so I suspect that these days if you give the audience time to think about it they'd arrive at the "collective effort" solution sooner or later. The only way to conserve the surprise at that point is to make sure the solution to part B comes hot on the heels of part A, so the audience either doesn't have time to arrive at the logical conclusion or the solution is provided soon enough after they've guess that they don't feel like the movie is taking them for fools.

So on that basis it's probably for the best that the movie is largely aimed at being a cozy piece for people who already have familiarity with the story, because structurally Brannagh's done the opposite of what he needed to do to make the whodunnit bits pop.
Sonia Mitchell at 20:10 on 2018-01-10
Thanks, Arthur. It’s been far too long.

The Johnny Depp think did occur to me. It’s a good performance but yeah.

I think you’re right about the structure of the mystery, although I first read the book so long ago it’s hard to evaluate it objectively. Christie was very good at hiding pertinent facts in plain sight, which is wisely not something Brannagh attempts. It’s much easier to hide things in text.

There were a few rumbles of surprise in the cinema, memorably when Mrs Hubbard revealed herself to be the avenging mother, but overall I think most of us were there to see a story we already knew.

Your Chandler quote reminds me of the end of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (spoiler):

”In the end I asked a child. I told him the story of the trick and asked him how he thought it had been done, and he said, and I quote, ‘It’s bleedin’ obvious, innit, he must’ve ‘ad a bleedin’ time machine.’”

It’s a very hard frame of mind to get into.
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2018-01-18
Great to see you back in action, Sonia. I’d like to comment on the article, but I haven’t seen the movie, and while I wouldn’t be against it, I have no particular desire to see it.

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.

I’m sure I heard somewhere Brannagh has a history of hiring racially diverse casts. He was the director who gave us Idris Elba as Heimdall after all, and I think we can all agree the Thor films a stronger for it (despite some … questionable incidents towards the end of Ragnarok).

As long as we’re talking, Murder on the Orient Express, there’s an awesome in-joke in one of the later “Thursday Next” books by Jasper Fforde, where the main character is in the realm of fiction where all the characters from novels past and present live, and has to interrogate a yeti. Upon learning the main character’s a cop, the yeti exclaims, “I swear, I was nowhere near the Orient Express that night, and even if I was, I had nothing against Mr. Casetti (sp?)!” (paraphrased). Which if you’ve read the book is absolutely priceless.
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