Walking into Murder on the Orient Express – the latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s hyper-famous detective story – I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s 2017, after all, and big budget movies are generally spectacle these days. The trailers certainly promised lots of CGI, and perhaps even some two-fisted action. I’m no purist – I read Orient Express in high school, during a period when I discovered detective novels aren’t for me – but I couldn’t imagine a modern adaptation of this work would feel like anything but bloated bombast.
So imagine my surprise when the movie ended up being rather small scale and even intimate, with the camera crowded into corners of sleeping compartments and often peering down from overhead. Yes, there’s plenty of CGI – every establishing shot looks like Star Wars – but Kenneth Branagh’s take on Christie keeps the scope small and most of the action mental.
Branagh himself plays Hercules Poirot, perhaps the second most famous detective in all the literature, and he is delightful in the part. Christie had Poirot as a fussy, fastidious man, and Branagh takes that closer to OCD. This detective is afflicted by the inability to see past the things that make the world not as perfect as it could be, thus giving him an almost supernatural ability to suss out clues.
Branagh puts on a broad accent and a broader mustache to play the Belgian criminologist, and he’s often droll and wonderful as he interacts with the first class passengers on the Orient Express, each a suspect in the murder of Johnny Depp (certainly a crime for which any of us could have a motive). Branagh’s small moments as Poirot – giggling uncontrollably at A Tale of Two Cities, sparring with suspects using black belt level passive aggressiveness, losing his cool and shouting that a set of cooked books are “full of the fudge!” – give the sort of airy laughs that set this adaptation apart from a Masterpiece Theater stuffiness.
The director gets the best bits; he’s supported by a strong cast of actors who have colorful, eccentric roles to play, but none get the level of spotlight reserved for Christie’s most enduring creation. As it should be, and the casting of these excellent actors is strategic. Dame Judi Dench only NEEDS a scene to work her magic, as does Willem Dafoe. Branagh sprinkles in some new faces alongside the likes of Penelope Cruz and Derek Jacobi; Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr plays a doctor, and brings the ability to discuss racial politics with him (as does the changing of a character from an Italian to a Spaniard), and Daisy Ridley joins us from a galaxy far, far away to show that she has the sort of subtle chops that British actors seem to come across so naturally. She has a wonderful scene where she proves herself if not the equal to Poirot at least in his general zip code, and I found myself deeply interested in a mystery story where Ridley gets to play the troubled yet brilliant deducer.
All of this is set-up for perhaps one of the most infamous solutions in mystery novel history, and I’m gonna talk about it here. If you’ve somehow made it this far in life without learning the ending of Murder on the Orient Express stop now and save your purity for the pleasures of the picture.
The big solution, of course, is that EVERYBODY did it. All of the characters are guilty, and they all have come together to extract revenge on a killer who shattered their lives by murdering a toddler. Branagh, working from a script by Michael Green (Logan and Blade Runner 2049) comes to this through a subtle series of tonal changes that, I think, elevate this movie to something truly great. By the end of the movie, faced with the identity of the culprits, Poirot must confront the fact that justice is simply impossible.
The first half of the film is so breezy as to be a comedy. When the murder happens the investigation is a joy, and it’s fun watching Poirot do his interviews and examine his confusing, confounding evidence. That the victim is a scumbag only adds to the weightlessness; this is an exercise rather than an attempt to right the cosmic balance. Nobody cares that this guy died, and Poirot only cares because the circumstances of the murder are so peculiar that they trigger his Detective Sense.
But as the story unfolds we learn that the late Mr. Ratchett was more than just a gangster/art forger. He himself was a killer, involved in a Lindbergh Baby-esque kidnapping plot that left the child dead, a nanny falsely accused and hounded to her suicide, a mother killed by grief and a father dead by his own hand. One terrible action ripples out, shattering not only those lives, but the lives of those close to them.
No author popularized murder as a parlor game more than Agatha Christie, and in Murder on the Orient Express this concept is first taken to its extreme before being dragged back to the harsh and unlovely reality. As the film finds Poirot confronting his suspects at a Last Supper-esque table (the image is a bit on the nose, but I’ll take it in a blockbuster landscape where the only notable visuals are the endlessly recycled action shots created by anonymous pre-viz houses) all of the lightness comes crashing down like a collapsing souffle.
What had been a trifle, a game, becomes a harsh emotional reality – Ratchett’s actions have ruined 12 lives, and those people have come together in a fiendish plot to take vengeance on this man. Poirot, a servant of justice and order, finds himself in a situation where those ideals come up short. He finds himself ripped apart, unable to find the correct balance needed to restore the world to its proper order.
That’s because there is no balance to be found. What these people did was, without a doubt, wrong. But punishing them – seeing some of them or all of them hang for this crime – would not bring any greater balance. It would only further push things out of order, sending out further cracks in the glass of decency and goodness in the world.
It’s a powerful concept – the servant of justice faced with his master’s pointlessness. Sometimes making things right only makes them further wrong, and so Poirot is forced – perhaps for the first time in his life – to lie and present the wrong solution to a mystery. It’s a huge moment that we can all learn from, and reminds me of one of those hackneyed catchphrases I hear in recovery all the time:
“Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”
The only solution to this, it turns out, is to step outside the cycle. Poirot could be a cog in the machine, moving these people towards the fates that justly awaits them, but he sees that immediate justice serves only a larger injustice. And so he takes himself out, allows the loop of pain and reaction to end. He makes a choice to contain the damage to that one train car, to these 12 people.
In the film Poirot gives a speech about listening not to his brain but to his heart, which sounds like the movie is making a case for the death penalty. Ratchett deserved to die, you could say, and Poirot has allowed mob justice to take its toll. But I don’t think that’s where Branagh comes down in the end; the final moments with the Orient Express – Poirot leaves it before the journey is over, called away to the events of Death on the Nile – shows us 12 people who are hollow and ruined. There is no happiness for them in the murder of Ratchett, no true closure. The baby he killed has not returned, the other lives ruined not restored. They are silent, haunted, defeated. The train moves on directly into a fiery, hellish sunset.
No, Poirot isn’t giving the mob justice his blessing, he’s simply unwilling to continue this pattern of pain. He’s learning, late in life, that justice isn’t a simple mathematical equation, that it isn’t an eye for an eye.
Of course we have an easy out or two – Christie sets it up so that none of these people are true killers. None will go off and murder again, despite Poirot telling us that a murder who has killed once will not hesitate to do so again. We see that these are people reacting to extraordinary circumstances in, perhaps, a less than ideal way. Poirot isn’t setting loose Jack the Ripper at the end of this story.
For me the magic of this latest version of Orient Express is the way that a movie so unencumbered at the start can come to a place of such deep moral and spiritual meaning. The story captures my usual problem with detective tales – these deducers are psychics, pulling information from the ether – but in the end Orient Express is less about the solution and more about the meaning of that solution. It’s about reclaiming the trauma of murder, reminding us that this isn’t just a jolly good way to start a tale but also the way it hurts and wounds at a distance. In a world soaked with pithy true crime stuff it’s a welcome reminder that every victim whose story tantalizes us has left behind expanding circles of loss and grief, ripples in the pond of humanity.
Branagh’s too good to let the heaviness at the end of Orient Express overtake it. Poirot disembarks from the train and is immediately met by a messenger, eager to take him to the site of a murder in Egypt. Poirot perks up from his gloom and realizes the game is, once again, afoot. Yes, it’s important to remember the impact of death and crime… but sometimes it’s also nice to have a wicked good puzzle to crack. Here’s hoping this iteration of Poirot has a chance to return to the big screen in Death on the Nile.