Along with Cinderella, Murder on the Orient Express marks Kenneth Branagh’s return to classically-inflected literary adaptations after a few years working on big-budget blockbusters such as Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Like all the adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express that have come before it, the screenplay sticks closely to the letter of Agatha Christie’s novel, with Branagh broadening the scope of reference with nods in the direction of various great train films, from Shanghai Express and The Lady Vanishes to Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express, along with every other version of the story that has been filmed to date. As might be expected, Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation, starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, is a perpetual point of reference, although Branagh seems to consciously define himself against Lumet’s naturalistic sense of space, instead opting for a historical fantasia in which lurid, flamboyant landscapes unfold around the train’s passage, abstracting the carriages and their occupants from any realistic conception of time or space.
If Murder on the Orient Express marks Branagh’s return to literary adaptations, then it also marks his return to appearing as the protagonist in his own films, to the point where this often feels like a sustained pretext and opportunity for Branagh to play Hercule Poirot. By this point in time, we’ve seen multiple versions of Poirot, with David Suchet’s exhaustive depiction, in particular, bringing every single one of his stories to the screen. Even for those not versed in Christie’s crime fiction universe, Poirot’s reputation precedes him – if not as a character, then as a type – with the result that his quirks are inevitably shorn of their charm, especially on the big screen, even if you didn’t already find them irritating to begin with. Yet that provides Branagh with some scope to settle into Poirot as a more naturalistic character, and to capture some of the melancholy that suffuses the later Poirot novels, which works quite naturally alongside the film’s inexorable awareness that it can never quite invest or imbue this time-worn character – or caricature – with anything truly original or astonishing. For that reason, Branagh’s adaptation feels like one of Poirot’s final cases, or even his final case, despite the fact that it occurs relatively early in his private career. While the final scene may set up Death on the Nile, the investigation here is perpetually presented as late work for both Poirot and Branagh, suffused with an overwhelming awareness of finitude that sees the little Belgian detective yearning for a holiday before the train even takes off.
That sense of Poirot’s isolation and alienation from his own legacy and media image is only enhanced by the nature of Christie’s plot trajectory, in which each character on the train is muffled and absorbed by the ensemble as whole. Indeed, so circumscribed is the action, and so constrained is the structure of the drama, that it’s hard to know how a director could really “update’ it, especially since most of the characters are broad types as well. Like most of Christie’s novels, Murder on the Orient Express presents a schema, rather than a story, and the problem with schemas is that they only really admit of one adaptation – if that – since the plot has to proceed in a fairly standardised and mechanical way to fit everything in. For all the flourish and style, then, there’s not really that much in this version to really distinguish it all that emphatically from Lumet, even if Branagh’s version of Poirot is a little more wistful and nostalgic. As in Lumet, and in the novel, the action proceeds by way of a series of interviews, in which Poirot talks to each member of the train and then finally deduces that the murder was a collaborative act of revenge in which each passenger played a role in killing the main perpetrator for an abduction based on the Lindbergh kidnapping. Yet unlike in Lumet’s version, you feel that the story of this crime – the months and years leading up to the communal stabbing of the perpetrator in his cabin – is the more interesting and eerie story, even if it’s reduced to a few cursory black and white flashbacks.
By contrast, the main action itself feels more and more like a flashback, claustrophobically and hermetically sealed from the present tense, until it’s more like watching a distant memory of a Christie adaptation. Certainly, the action does venture out into the surrounding environment more than any other version, partly because this time around the train breaks down on a precipitous bridge on the edge of a mountain tunnel, giving the characters considerable time and space to explore the variegated landscape outside. Yet that just reiterates the extent to which these putatively “external” spaces are themselves digitally composited, part of a pastiche and amalgam of every previous Christie adaptation rather than bearing any direct relation to the original novel any more. For all the tracking-shots and aerial perspectives, the train – and world around it – is presented as a series of discontinuous set pieces, refracted rather than connected through the etched glass partitions that segment and fractallate the dining car into a thousand different sightlines.
If nothing else, then, and for all the frothy frivolity of the promotional campaign, this is the most melancholy adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express – and perhaps the most melancholy adaptation of Christie full stop – often approaching the mood of Curtain and Sleeping Murder, Poirot and Miss Marple’s last two cases respectively. In particular, the film fractures the futurity that the criminal conspiracy itself tries to revive – the American mobility, longevity and self-belief that, during the interwar period, became so associated with Charles Lindbergh’s flight over the Atlantic in 1927, and which was so ruptured when his son was kidnapped and murdered five years later in 1932. As the book presents it, the criminal conspiracy is an effort to restore this thwarted futurity, but part of the art of Branagh’s adaptation lies in its continual gestures towards World War II as a horizon that will eventually transform and consume every character on the train in one way or another. Perhaps that’s why even Poirot’s most ingenious moments have an air of finitude about them, as he embarks upon what turns out to be the most challenging case of his entire career, and even the moral apex of his life, even if many of his stories are still ahead of him.
In other words, by investigating the case, and seeking to identify the perpetrators, Poirot himself becomes an enemy of the future, lending his presence a datedness and world-weariness that I’ve never seen in any other Christie adaptation. By the end, there’s an ineffable sadness to it all, producing a similar denouement to the novel – Poirot’s decision to posit a lone killer, rather than implicate the participants in the crime – but in a very different spirit. In the original, Poirot relishes the aptness of this decision, and the abrupt ending encourages the reader to do the same. Here, however, he does so with a much heavier heart, as if aware that the attempt to restore justice to the situation is already too late. And that sense of belatedness pervades the entire film, which almost plays as a blueprint for how the last major Christie adaptation – at least the last to play in commercial theatres – might look; the final breath of an adaptive impulse that has lasted over half a century.