I'm just going to say it: I loved Kenneth Branagh’s recent film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, Murder on the Orient Express.
Partially this is due to the fact that it was visually stunning. But what did I expect? That a lavishly furnished steam engine, winding its atmospheric way through snow-capped mountain passes, carrying a richly costumed cadre of some of the finest actors of our generation would be difficult to look at? Being familiar with Branagh’s penchant for over-the-top-ness, I expected a spectacle, and ladies and gentlemen, this film delivered. It was beautiful.
More important than Branagh’s delightful indulgence in theatrical hyperbole, however, was his turn as Hercule Poirot.
Branagh does an excellent job of humanizing Poirot, arguably a character marked most by his lack of human foibles. Christie's character, if we read Poirot's mysteries as a whole, is an intentionally clipped, proper, unruffled character. When a case gets difficult, the main emotion we see from him is the sort of intense, fiery delight we might associate with a world class athlete pushing themselves past normal human limits, or a chess grandmaster facing a worthy opponent for once. But it takes a keen eye to see him stretched in such a way that we identify with him instead of looking up to him.
That isn't to say, however, that Christie doesn't intend for us to identify with him! Throughout her corpus, she grasps human frailty with startling and confrontational insistence, and spares no one as she paints a broken world, made seamy by fatal flaws in otherwise good people. Her villains are seldom wholly evil: instead, they are normal people, betrayed by their passions. No class is exempt from baser impulse, neither sex is gentled in their rapacity, and even her heroes often come up against themselves. Orient Express, perhaps more than any of Christie’s works, exemplifies this insistence on the limits of man’s perception, which is why, I think, Branagh chose it as his palette.
Branagh has proven himself, over the years, a fabulous critic. Rather than trying to make his mark on a great work, he nearly always teases out and highlights the heart of whatever masterpiece he’s currently tasked with interpreting. Call it a willingness to “play it straight ahead” or an old-fashioned homage to his first love of the stage, he always outs with an earnest, almost childishly starry-eyed performance. His treatment of Cinderella, which I intend to discuss elsewhere, will make you weep. If it doesn’t, then you don’t believe in a happy ending, but never fear—you’re in the right place. Watch it again, and I can almost promise you a restored faith in all things right and good.
But I digress. Orient Express was another fine example of Kenneth being Kenneth. With all his usual tact, compassion, and humility, Branagh took a sepia masterpiece and remastered it in stunning color—Poirot, above all, clings to justice, despite the evil he faces both in his world and (we must presume) in his own heart. But in the end, only God is just, and even Poirot must acknowledge the limits of his famed instincts. We watch the detective face an impossible conundrum, and slowly accept his inability to put things right. After a lifetime of devotion to the truth, Branagh’s Poirot cannot force these events to make sense. They are broken irreparably, just as the human heart. For once, we see a chink in his armor. And rather than plaster it over, he tears it wide open, confessing his humanity, and leaving the administration of justice to the only just judge. We feel for him, and are so led to feel for the train-full of murderers on whom he has decided to have compassion.
Now isn’t that just the point of fiction!? To have the author call out to us in our humanity, and give us reason to identify with one another.
Christie tells a cunning truth in this novel, and Branagh faithfully decorates it so that we can see it clearly. Hats off, Mr. Branagh. My thanks to you. And to the rest of you, go watch this film. It’s well worth your time.