Poirot’s Murder on the Orient Express. A classic character reborn?

The 2017 Poirot film “Murder on the Orient Express is the newest entry in the filming of the classic detective series by Agatha Christie.

It is perhaps the greatest challenge Poirot ever faced. A test of wit and critical thinking that most people would quit while at it because of the illogicality of it all. No clear evidence or lead towards the murderer would have most investigators questioning their sanity. But not Poirot, the greatest detective alive!

For the people not familiar with the little Belgium Detective: He is former policeman who specialises in cases involving high society. Exceptions are the ones that pique his interest. Because of his involvement with high society he also has a choice in with case he accepts, which is of course a freelancers dream. Being active in the 1920ies, technology is limited, and Poirot solves his cases using his little grey cells and insight into human behaviour.

The case

A murder has taken place on the Orient Express, the direct train connection between Istanbul/Stamboul and Paris/Marseille. It happens on the night the train runs into a snowdrift.

By sheer coincidence Hercule Poirot is travelling with the train to swiflty return to London for another case. He only receives a cabin in the else fully booked train because Mr. Bouc, the director of the line, is a close friend of Poirot. Because of the reputation of Poirot and the snowdrift, Bouc asks his friend to solve the case so his passengers are not anymore delayed by the Yugoslavian police when the train is freed. And because he wants this incident to not harm the good name of the Orient Express.

Poirot reluctantly accepts the case, only to find the facts hard to seperate from the false evidence. With the help of Mr. Bouc and Doctor Constantine they try to solve the case with only breadcrumbs of evidence available to them.

For the people who’ve seen the films or read the book, the sheer complexity and outcome of the case is known. So when I’ve heard a new film version of the story was being made, I was a bit careful to judge it. My intention was initially not to watch it in the theater, but my curiosity got the better of me. What can I say, I like Poirot and I like the movies…

So to me the question is how would you profile the character of Poirot in 2018. He is a classic character with appearances in 33 novels, over 50 short story, multiple stageplays, 7+ (tv-)films, 25+ radiodramas, a 39 episode anime series and a 10-season television series on his name*. Not to mention Orient Express alone. Its first installment, from 1974 is considered a classic by many. Poirot is portrayed by Albert Finney, and is complemented by the likes of Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery. I recently rewatched it, and I must say it really holds up as a film.

Also the story stands strong because its is true to the book. For some reason the Line director’s name was changed from Bouc to Bianchi, but that’s only peanuts compared to changes in the other installments. And I personally like Finney’s Poirot very much. He is maybe a bit happy with himself at times, but in a way a true and accessible portrayal of the multilayered character**.

I believe I watched the 2001 tv-film which stars Alfred Molina once, a long tome ago. So I cannot give my decent opinion on it. The only thing I have found doing my research is that is not the best iteration of the character and the mystery.

The 2010 installment is an (extended )tv episode of the Poirot television series starring David Suchet as our Belgium detective. This is also a reasonable installment/filming of the book. I chose the word reasonable here for a specific reason. I’ve seen many Poirot episodes through the years, and only recently started to watch it chronologically. But I have never encountered a version of Poirot where he turned to religion as a backbone/holdfast for the insanity of humanity. And Poirot encounters a few crazy cases in his years. Poirot uses logic and insight in the human psyche to solve his cases. To me, it does not fit the character as I know and appreciate him. That is my personal issue with this installment. Besides that, I very much like Suchets version of Poirot in the episodes I’ve watched over the last 15-20 years. 

A few words on the series: I want to insert a few words on the tv-series here. It ran from 1989 to 2013. David Suchet played Poirot all 70 episodes. As when looking at its ratings on IMDB, I noticed the following. This series is solid. With an average rating of 8.6, it certainly is worth the watch. The lowest rated episode is a 7.0 and it’s highest an 8.5. Again, solid.

“Orient Express” is in season 12, so I have some ways to go before seeing it again. Nonetheless, I will watch it again. Perhaps then there will be something that will stick with me than it currently does.

2017 Film

Our new, 2017 version where Kenneth Branagh plays and directs Poirot is interesting to say the least. Modern cinema brings new techniques and challenges to this classic story. Techniques that weren’t available earlier which make filmmaking easier compared to the earlier installments. Go green screen!

But at the same time people aren’t used to the slow, methodical pace of this story. And many people aren’t familiar with Poirot. So it’s only natural we get some exposition of Branagh’s version of Poirot at the start. And in my honest opinion, this is slightly overdone. It shows us how Poirot works, but also portraits some of the support cast as simple/stupid people. You cannot tell me that a chef who works in an expensive hotel makes the mistake twice of bringing Poirot 2 eggs who are not of the same size!

Furthermore, the chief of police leaves the stolen artifact in his office? In a time where hiding stolen items was way easier, he should’ve known better. Especially when hiring a world famous detective to solve a case where you yourself are the guilty party. This is all a silly method to clearly indicate to the viewers the so-called superiority of Poirot. And he is not superior. He is an insightful, clever man who uses his skills to solve crimes.

When you compare the story to the novel, you would see adjustments to the story which divert it more from the earlier installments. Doctor Constantine and Colonel Abuthnot are 1 character which removes some of the layering of the mystery. There are probably more changes I did not notice but the big elephant in the room is the portrayal of Poirot himself. As mentioned earlier, he is uplifted at the start, like some kind of super detective. To be subsequently downplayed as a emotionally hurt man who turns to a dead lover for mental and spiritual guidance. For the sake of the film I understand that there is a reasoning for this. It being that an actor would portray him like that to create a likable, flawed character. Very modern, but again not very true to the character. #notmypoirot

I understand that this story is a writer/directors challenge: 12 suspects, 3 people to solve the case and only a few extra’s as backup in a confined space. All are involved and all have a serious part to play. So how does one portray this monstrosity of a story. Probably by cutting elements out. It takes creativity to make something from this story is not a flat remake of the 1974 classic. But I must say that the overall the result is really entertaining. The cast is stellar and the filmwork excellent. CinemaSins only counted 79 sins, which is an achievement in itself. By all means it is an excellent new entry. But I sincerely hope that Death on the Nile shows us a less melodramatic and more intellectual sound Poirot then we have seen here.

I like that Poirot is given a new life for audiences new and old to entertain. But to make people enjoy the character I would prefer him to be more true to the books then to the vices of modern cinema. Again, I believe that it is a good portrayal of the story, but not the classic that I think it could be. For now the classic is, and will be the 1974 film.


*Please note that I could not find exact numbers for this. Best numbers here

**And the only actor who received an oscar nomination for the role