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A Closer Look at 2018’s 'Murder on the Orient Express'

Christopher Peruzzi has been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for over 35 years. He writes about Sherlock, zombies, comics, and philosophy.

2018's Murder on the Orient Express

2018's Murder on the Orient Express

A Classic for Agatha Christie Lovers

I am a man of many passions.

I love comic books, superheroes, classical music, comedies, and, yes, mysteries. Outside of my love for the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, another detective who gives me my mystery fix is the little Belgian, Hercules Poirot.

Poirot, one of the Christie’s most beloved creations, has appeared in thirty-three novels and more than fifty short stories. At least twenty actors have played him on stage, television, and screen. One of his most popular mysteries is Murder on the Orient Express. It is a mystery with all of the hallmarks of Christie's telltale clues and keeps amateur sleuths guessing until Poirot’s great reveal.

And no, I’m not going to spoil it for people who have not seen any of the movies or haven't read the actual novel.

Those people are probably backward natives of some remote tropical island who have only just discovered books and are currently catching up on things like cooking with fire.

The 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Hercules Poirot

The 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Hercules Poirot

This Mystery has Predecessors

My first exposure to this mystery was the 1974 movie version starring… practically every great actor of that generation. It had the great talents of Albert Finney (as Poirot), Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Michael York, and so many others.

Is it the best version? It’s a matter of opinion. I will say, though, it is probably the most popular and probably the most entertaining.

That said, you should also watch the Granada version starring David Suchet (as Poirot) with Barbara Hershey, Toby Jones, David Morrissey, and Hugh Bonneville. This version shows a darkly played story that will change your perception of the 1974 version and leave you with an eerie disturbing emptiness but also with a definite resolution to this mystery.

There are also the subpar versions. Avoid the 2001 version starring Alfred Molina (as Poirot), Meredith Baxter, Peter Strauss, and no one else as it is nothing like a good mystery.

But first…

David Suchet as Hercules Poirot

David Suchet as Hercules Poirot

A Word about Hercules Poirot

The little Belgian detective, Hercules Poirot (pronounced “Herc-yule Pwarr-oh”, is a fan favorite. His soft-spoken demeanor, his meticulousness, his attention to detail, as well as his fastidiousness to practically everything are part of his charm. He touts his dedication to “the psychology” and the stimulation of his “little gray cells”.

Mix in the fact that he’s a bit of a dandy when it comes to how he looks and you have the recipe for a great central character.

Poirot’s most prominent feature is his mustache. No actor should play him without one. Christie has described Poirot’s mustache as being great, upwardly pointed, and curled with mustache wax.

Physically, Poirot's a short man. He stands at five foot four inches but he carries himself with great dignity and has the bearing of a military man (from being on the Belgian police force).

His head is “egg-shaped” and his nose is pink-tipped.

Over twenty actors have portrayed the little Belgian including David Suchet, Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Kenneth Branagh, Orson Welles, José Ferrer, Tom Conti, Ian Holm, Tony Randall, and Charles Laughton.

There has to be a great temptation to play this role comedically. And while there is plenty of comedic fuel to make light of this character, actors and directors have to remember that despite these things, Poirot is a force to be reckoned with.

Three Poirots - Tony Randall, Kenneth Branagh, and Peter Ustinov

Three Poirots - Tony Randall, Kenneth Branagh, and Peter Ustinov

Who Plays Poirot Best?

Unlike the character of Sherlock Holmes (also a detective with many quirks), Poirot is known for his manners and kindness. Poirot can speak perfect English. However, when he speaks with broken English, the guilty party will drop their guard and say something incriminating.

There are four actors who have played Poirot with varying degrees of success – Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, David Suchet, and Kenneth Branagh.

Albert Finney played Poirot in the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express. He's a little over the top. It's what you’d expect from Hollywood. Finney’s foreigner performance was born on the Rhine River, starting in Belgium and ending on the outskirts of Italy. The anger is explosive. The accent is outrageous almost unintelligible. However, he plays the detective part seriously. The clues are treated in a formal manner. It is exact and deliberate. It's what the viewer expects for the story. Finney’s height makes him slouch for the role – which is something Poirot doesn't do.

Peter Ustinov was not the right body type, standing nearly six feet tall and sporting white hair and a droopy mustache. He played Poirot in Death on the Nile. I have to say Ustinov’s performance was pretty good and he played him with a quiet demeanor and believable warmth.

Peter Ustinov as Poirot

Peter Ustinov as Poirot

I look at both Finney’s and Ustinov’s Poirots as a Sherlock Holmes fan looks at the Basil Rathbone's performance. For Hollywood, they're good Poirots.

Then we have David Suchet.

For twenty-five years, Suchet played Poirot for Granada on the BBC. Many, including myself, consider him to be the definitive Poirot. He is the character. In thirteen seasons, Suchet never failed to meet the bar of excellence needed for each of the 70 one-hour stories.

Granada's "Murder on the Orient Express" with David Suchet (2010)

Granada's "Murder on the Orient Express" with David Suchet (2010)

Now we have Kenneth Branagh as Poirot.

I had my doubts. From the first trailer where I saw Branagh’s outrageous mustache, I was worried. Don't get me wrong. Branagh is one of the finest actors of our age. Only when I heard his line, “I am Hercules Poirot and I am the greatest detective in the world”, it made me wince.

I knew I had to see this movie. I had to be fair in my judgment. I needed to see his performance.

Well, he was different.

It just took me a while to get by the mustache – which looked like an eagle had flown directly into his face and crash-landed in the middle of it. That mustache could not be ignored. It was as subtle as a naked sumo wrestler at a ladies' tea party.

Fortunately, I watched it after I saw the special features on the DVD. Agatha Christie’s grandson was a consultant who noted his grandmother's first complaint on Finney’s mustache (Yes, she was still alive in 1974). She said it had to be bigger – like one mustache mated with another and had a baby the size of a double mustache.

Kenneth Branagh and his outrageous mustache

Kenneth Branagh and his outrageous mustache

Branagh played the part as an obsessive-compulsive. It is not wrong. Poirot has elements of that. He was careful not to get into Adrian Monk territory. Branagh, as the director, wanted to establish this point. It works for this film.

Branagh's Poirot is warm, likable, and intelligent. He has the appropriately quiet demeanor. He's made a caricature believable. In the end, I found his performance good and entertaining.

Nurse Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman) and Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench)

Nurse Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman) and Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench)

The Movie Itself

This movie is good and bad.

It depends on your point of view as you’re watching it.

Watching this film with the expectation of it being a mystery, on a base level, I hated it. Really. I despised it. I found myself saying, “No, that is NOT what happened.” I also found myself saying, “Why?”

The actors performed their roles well. Johnny Depp made a great Ratchett. Like his 1974 predecessor, Richard Widmark, he oozed evil and villainy. He’s tough, ruthless, and thoroughly unlikeable - exactly what you’d expect.

The same can be said about Judi Dench's performance as the aging Russian princess and Olivia Colman as her maid. She plays the part well as an aristocratic old maid with her servant.

Derek Jacobi as Ratchett’s butler is well done and the natural chemistry he had with Branagh is apparent. Each actor played their parts perfectly.

It was the story that was terrible. It just wasn't the story.

Too many things had been changed. Too many roles were just wrong. If you’d seen the film before or read the book, you’d spot it immediately.

It made me angry.

Poirot on imperfections

Poirot on imperfections

Closing Thoughts

But this movie can sucker punch you any second.

When I went to bed later, I remembered one line Branagh said which changed my perspective and made the movie perfect.

It really was very subtle genius.

He simply said this, “I can only see a world as it should be. It makes an imperfection stick out like the nose on your face.

That was when it hit me.

Practically everyone has seen this movie and knows the plot. Practically everyone knows the clues. Practically everyone knows the guilty party.

We know the story as it should be. Mentally, we're laying the perfect version over an imperfect one.

What I saw wasn’t the mystery I was expecting.

What I saw was a film on how Hercules Poirot sees the world and what it’s like to be him. I knew what was supposed to happen and saw the imperfection as it was happening on the screen.

This was not a purposeless change of characters, roles, and plot. What this was, was a chance to experience Poirot’s worldview and irritation of things that aren’t what they’re supposed to be.

This is my theory until someone convinces me that I’m wrong.

Had that line not been said and had I not known Branagh’s other work and the supporting cast playing their roles, I'd think the movie was terrible. This was an exercise to understand the detail, listen, and observe. When something is not what it’s supposed to be it should stand out. This is what the movie did. Whether it was a character not being where he was supposed to be or someone else doing something they weren't supposed to, we would see it.

The differences stood out.

Like what Obi-wan Kenobi said, “It was true… from a certain point of view.”

An alcoholic Hector MacQueen and Bad Brooklyn Art Dealer, Edward Ratchett

An alcoholic Hector MacQueen and Bad Brooklyn Art Dealer, Edward Ratchett

Favorite Version

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Christopher Peruzzi