JANUARY 16, 2018
WHY DID SIDNEY LUMET in 1974 and Kenneth Branagh in 2017 go to the trouble of assembling star-studded casts to revisit Agatha Christie’s ingenious but very creaky novel of the 1930s, Murder on the Orient Express? One try was understandable. After all, the novel draws on at least two compelling genres: 12 suspects confined to their elegant sleeping and dining cars on a train delayed by a snow drift offers not just the bafflement of the closed room mystery, but also the inescapable microcosm of the “ship of fools” (Narrenschiff), which goes back to the Middle Ages and leaves traces on the masterpieces of Boccaccio and Chaucer. Christie’s fools, too, are obliged to tell stories that we may or may not accept at face value. Even before Christie’s novel, both genres were made popular in (also star-studded) films like Grand Hotel (1932) and The Kennel Murder Case (1933). But why did Branagh try what Lumet had tried already? Yes, remakes offer a certain kind of artistic challenge, and there are lots of remakes. And the choice of this Christie novel is peculiar for any form of ambition that expects to be taken seriously.
All the same, it’s not quite right to blame Christie, as some have done. When, with his usual wit, Anthony Lane dismissed the Branagh film out of hand in The New Yorker, he bothered to do so at all, one feels, in order to put Christie in her place. Murder on the Orient Express was one of Christie’s two “trick ending” novels featuring Hercule Poirot — challenging without quite violating Father Ronald Knox’s famous “Decalogue” of don’ts for mystery writers from 1929. The other of these, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), supplied Edmund Wilson with the title of his second and more famous New Yorker diatribe against detective fiction, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (1945). It’s not clear whether Wilson actually read that novel; in his first article he had said he would never read another Christie, having sampled one. But he also said that he had been receiving irate mail from crime fiction lovers, and they were all urging him to try one of their own favorites before giving up on that sort of reading. It’s a safe guess that Ackroyd got a lot of mentions, as without gaining from the passage of time it was voted the best crime novel ever by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1999 (they had Orient Express on their shortlist), and for that reason I think one can say that Wilson and Lane, alike literary wits patrolling the boundaries of Serious Art in The New Yorker, were similarly provoked to speak out by Christie titles that imply a gold standard for genre fiction.
The charge against Christie is admittedly severe. Her workaday prose is plodding and littered with clichés; her lifeless characters are stereotypes, often ethnicity-inflected or gendered; her invariable plots first set the stage for a crime, then give us chapter by chapter close-ups of and successive interviews with all the suspects in turn, sometimes adding the corpse of the leading suspect along the way, then gather all the suspects in a room with a policeman at the door to prevent escapes while the detective lays out the elaborate deductions that point toward the murderer he or she (if it’s Miss Marple) infallibly finger. Another way of putting these criticisms is that, in a taut form ostensibly designed to spring surprises, there are no surprises apart from a puzzle solution that can’t begin to make up for the tedium along the way. Hence, say its detractors, reading crime fiction, and especially reading Christie’s 66 novels, is a craving satisfied only by repetition and frustrated by anything truly unexpected. The formulas of Christie’s novels inspired the board game Clue; her characters seem, in fact, no more surprising than Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlett, and the country-house layout of the Clue board will suffice for most of her settings. It is all one, in short, whether one plays Clue or reads Christie.
Well, up to a point. To defend Christie we need to go back to those cliché categories and rethink them: her banal characters and her prose as it seeps into what they say. “Oh, I say, Perrow, that’s not quite the thing, you know.” “I’m sure a gentleman would never ask a lady such a question, Monsieur.” After all, Poirot himself is a foreigner, and a dotty one at that, ethnically branded by all the characters when they meet him, and even after the denouement he’s looked back on with a weary shake of the head. Miss Marple plays against, and encourages, an opposite convention — the genteel old spinster lady of modest means whose easy blending in with any British social setting and willingness to endure fond condescension make her invisible until she pounces. Poirot invites caricature; Marple invites underestimation. Here, in the detectives themselves, you have the trick Christie plays with any character she chooses for a foreground role. If you dislike Christie, you take them all for colossal fools, stereotypes keen to turn everyone they see into a stereotype. The reason why Christie’s puzzles are hard to solve, despite the exaggerated simplification of the playing field, is that the characters keep turning around and biting us on our own preconceptions, or, in any case, they do so when the surprise is finally sprung on us.
If it’s harder to find the right suspect in Christie than in any other Golden Age writer playing by Father Knox’s rules, that is not in spite of her banal characterizations but because of them. We think we know better, and when the underestimated outwit us, we’re wrong, again and again. Christie’s novels simplify in order to become an intricate game with codes. In Orient Express, a dim-witted character who plays Poirot’s Watson (in English settings, the character in this role is named Hastings) is convinced that the Italian on the train committed the crime because “an Italian’s weapon is the knife.” (Lumet borrows from this in allowing characters — including the Italian himself — to believe, after the murdered villain Ratchett is himself revealed to be Italian, that an imagined murderer who sneaked on and off the train is a mafioso. Branagh, to whom we shall soon turn, for some reason makes the Italian Spanish, still with stereotyping.) But guess what. Poirot concedes the point — “That is true” — only to point out quickly that here the easy solution isn’t available, or isn’t available in any case as a trait confined to particular ethnic habits. Poirot may be saying even now, well in advance of his éclaircissement, that the Italian in fact did stab the victim but that that doesn’t make him unique. It would be absurd to claim that Christie doesn’t love stereotypes and even in a certain sense disturbingly accept them, but she knows also that nearly anyone can outwit even their own stereotypes — anyone, that is, except Hastings or M. Bouc, his stand-in here — and the game she nearly always wins consists precisely in making readers realize they have been put to sleep by the appearance of banality or closed-mindedness.
Christie’s novel ignores the Nazi threat and the coming of war. It gives Colonel Arbuthnot (Sean Connery in Lumet) free rein with all the clichés about the importance of British rule in India, making him a bit of a youngish buffer thereby (the old Asia hand), but not openly subjecting him to criticism. Lumet erases history even more completely than Christie does. Whereas in Christie the name of a key character is revealed to be “Goldenberg” (“central European blood in her veins — a strain of Jewish perhaps?” Branagh returns to this.), Lumet makes the name merely German, Grünwald, itself perhaps an occasion for parochial eyebrow-raising (oh, these transcontinental trains!), but not a politicized one. Branagh, by contrast, tries for some history, more than he finds in Christie. His most complex alteration of her plot I think works very well. In both Christie and Lumet there’s a Greek doctor, Constantine, who is not a suspect (why he shouldn’t be one isn’t clear in either, and in other novels Christie might have brought him under suspicion) and hence remains an extra Watson who is surely unnecessary and even in some scenes clutters the screen, which is as hard put to squeeze in all these passengers as the purser is.
This will never do, and Branagh solves the problem. He turns Colonel Arbuthnot into Dr. Arbuthnot, still a former military officer and definitely a suspect, a black man (Leslie Odom Jr.) who is indebted for his medical education to the good offices of Colonel Armstrong, one of the victims of the past crime that has set all the proceedings on the train in motion. Not only is this an economy one might have expected from Christie, it gives a realistic ’30s edge to Christie’s racialized world. Branagh doesn’t stop there. One of the characters who’s quite unconvincing both in Christie and Lumet is in Branagh an American named Hardman pretending, until exposed, to be a German academic (“Hardman”) who deliberately ascribes to himself all the hatred of non-Aryans (especially Dr. Arbuthnot, with whom he refuses to share a table) that one would expect of a proto-Nazi. But, after a second unmasking, it appears that he doesn’t hold such views at all. It was all meant to deflect suspicion. In departing sharply from Christie in these adjustments, Branagh actually shows how well he understands her trademark manipulation of codes. Many of his inventions are good Christie.
Still, it’s not a good movie, though I think it better than the Lumet, which betters the other two versions only in giving the clearest visual account of the crime. Branagh’s effort just can’t succeed in such narrowly artificial confines, and it might have benefited from more drastic and surprising departures from Christie. I kept hoping he’d change her famous ending. But Branagh does better than Lumet with most of the star turns. Judi Dench, though, cannot better Wendy Hiller’s perhaps more interestingly mannered Princess Dragomiroff; and it’s also hard to improve on Lumet’s Jacqueline Bisset as the Countess Andrenyi, though Branagh finds someone as beautiful, Lucy Boynton, and makes her far more troubled, broken in spirit by the crime in the past, as Branagh’s characters generally are. His characters have vices and addictions and are openly dysfunctional, something not typical of Christie — normalcy deflects suspicion — but more credible in anyone we’d suppose deeply wounded by the past.
Branagh’s Daisy Ridley is a more impressive and decisive Mary Debenham than Lumet’s Vanessa Redgrave, who seems not to know what to make of Christie’s steely-minded character. There’s nothing evil-looking about Richard Widmark’s Ratchett, whose malocchio Christie had insisted on, whereas Johnny Depp’s Ratchett is too villainous to be true, but on the whole that’s the better extreme. Ingrid Bergman’s pious Greta Ohlsson is good in Lumet (developing Christie’s unelaborated remark that she is a “missionary nurse”), but Penélope Cruz, cast surprisingly in this role (renamed Pilar Estravados), turns the piety into a fetish, suggesting once again a crippling disorder. Josh Gad turns Ratchett’s secretary MacQueen into an alcoholic. Ratchett’s valet was John Gielgud in Lumet, but in Branagh his toothache is really a fatal cancer, and thus the valet too gets a motive one can believe in.
The real acting triumph of this film is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Mrs. Hubbard, who far outperforms Lauren Bacall’s, both in interpretation and nuance. Yes, as Anthony Lane says derisively (though he seems to admire the performance, too), Pfeiffer’s Mrs. Hubbard is forced to paraphrase Christie when she says to Poirot, as Bacall does not, “You’re an awfully clever man.” But that’s her only bad line. Branagh’s Poirot is riskily more ambitious, but I think better nonetheless than Albert Finney’s more body-conscious performance. Christie often says — though not in Orient Express — that Poirot has no neck and a head shaped like an egg; and Finney wants to be faithful to that description, scrunching his head down as though he had a pinched nerve. With doubtful success, however, Branagh complicates the character, giving him a remembered love affair and a moral epiphany during the course of the plot. Poirot has always been a cold rationalist, trusting “ze leetle gray cells,” but now he confronts a crime that calls for compassion, and so intense is his crise de conscience that in the implausible summing-up scene, when all the characters are lined up with much digital help to look like The Last Supper at the mouth of the train tunnel, he hands Mrs. Hubbard a revolver and invites her to shoot him. We hope that he does not imagine himself to be Jesus. Or perhaps he has read W. H. Auden’s “The Guilty Vicarage,” which argues that the Golden Age detective takes the sins of society upon himself.
The weakness of Christie’s plot is that in deep winter, when there are normally one or two passengers, the Wagon Lit is full, something Poirot observes from the beginning in all three versions. If she had got round this problem by setting the plot in the summertime, she wouldn’t have had the avalanche she needs. The full train in itself should have given Poirot the explanation he delays for so long, even in the novel. Maybe, just maybe, Branagh could have saved the day if he had changed the ending. But that would not have been enough to satisfy anyone who won’t stand for genre fiction.