Murder on the Orient Express is – not unfairly – one of Christie’s most revered and famed novels. The story of the murder in the Calais Coach, and Hercule Poirot solving the case amidst the twelve suspects in a snowbound train was the source for 1974’s opening edition in the Poirot film series, a lavish and self-consciously nostalgic all-star film, and, more recently, David Suchet’s bleaker version which emphasised the moral trials that both the killer(s) and Poirot must undergo. In between came this little oddity, a modern take on the story with a more subdued Poirot and a somewhat cherry-picking approach to the story itself. Let’s take a look…

Film Review: “Murder on the Orient Express” (2001)

with Alfred Molina (Hercule Poirot)

written by Stephen Harrigan

directed by Carl Schenkel

At this point, I’d assume there’s no point in rehashing the plot yet again, so let’s just dive in. Adaptations are funny things. If we go to the theatre to see a challenging adaptation of, say, Shakespeare, we’re likely to come away impressed with the decisions. After all, even if we didn’t personally agree with everything, the next production of Henry V might take the opposite approach. Besides, who wants to see the same staid, conventional design and portrayals? Rarely do we approach films or television with the same open-mindedness. Partly this is because, as fans, we’ll likely only get one such version, and we’d like both ourselves and our friends to be able to enjoy the story as we originally did. For instance, while I admire the concept and ideas behind Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (and the thought behind – if not the actuality of – the casting of Helena Bonham Carter in such a subdued version of Mrs. Lovett), a substantial part of me will always be upset that the big-screen adaptation of my favourite musical is so far removed, directorially, from the version I fell in love with. And, with older literature, it’s even more bizarre. Admittedly, this is the era where Dante’s Inferno is reimagined (largely for the well-known nature of its title) as a generic action video game, but why does it matter if a novel from the 1930s suffers some changes when adapted? After all, the novel still exists; you can still read it any time you’d like. And, whether you’re doing it as a period piece or no, character motivations may need updating to be recognisable for a modern audience. All fair enough.

Alfred Molina as Hercule Poirot in "Murder on the Orient Express"

Unfortunately, while I may have opened with that speech, this version of Murder on the Orient Express approaches the source text with a computer game mentality: utilise the famous name and the basic elements, but lose any of the depth and co-opt all the elements into your own philosophy. We open, for instance, with an amusing little sequence which strays close to parody, as  Molina’s Poirot solves an unseen crime starring a host of deliberately stereotypical characters. While it’s a comic way of drawing in viewers who know only the vague details of Christie’s genre, the opening reminds us of how liberally the filmmakers are going to plunder the text. Poirot’s girlfriend here is jewel thief Vera Rossakoff, who features in two Christie short stories and one novel. In the stories, Rossakoff is an older Russian woman whose criminal way of life obviously conflicts with Poirot, and their emotional connection is a source of suppressed tragedy. Here, Vera is a gorgeous femme fatale and all of 21, as played by Tasha de Vasconcelos. Trying to remember my words above on the elasticity of adaptations, I certainly see what attracted a 21st century writer to this concept. It certainly gives this Poirot a more ‘human’ edge – here, he’s just a slightly famous detective with very few quirks. But I’m not sure that it justifies using Poirot at all. In the case of Sweeney Todd, for instance, I recognise the decisions – good and bad – that Burton made. Some were necessary to transfer from the music hall to the intimacies of film; some (such as the darkening of the Anthony character) allowed him to prioritise certain themes that weren’t so dominant in the stage production; some – such as making Tobias a boy – allowed him to simplify the nature of one character while creating an even tougher moral decision for another. Here, though, I worry that in removing Poirot’s quirks, his age and – really – his other-ness, the writers would be better off creating a new character altogether (the same charge that could be made against those involved in the alleged Jennifer Garner reboot of Marple). But, of course, at the end of the day there’s a very good reason for using Poirot: his name brings in the bucks.

The plus-side of modernising Murder on the Orient Express, however, is that the movie doesn’t have to compete directly with the influential ’74 film. Instead, the – smaller – cast of suspects can be somewhat reimagined to suit our modern sensibilities. As the victim, Samuel Ratchett, Peter Strauss is very effectively an ’80s washed-up mobster, although he doesn’t particularly stand out as a performer. The novel’s snowdrift becomes a rockslide which gives the film a very time-dependent feel. Unlike in the novel or other adaptations, where the focus is solely on the possibility of Poirot solving it, here it feels as if the crime must be solved before the rocks are removed on that same day. But it is true, while the rockslide is a more cost-effective choice, it does remove a significant part of the atmosphere.

As a mystery, however, the film works rather well. The clues are neatly modernised: for instance, a stylus is left at the crime scene and characters dismiss the handkerchief because “who has embroidered handkerchiefs these days?”. The Armstrong family themselves are reimagined as a billionaire software tycoon and his New York socialite wife. Particularly neat is that Bob Arbuthnot (David Hunt, whose American accent failed him during moments of anger) refuses to play along for most of the film, as Poirot has no legal command of the situation. McQueen is effectively modernised by Adam James, retaining his character but becoming more of a yuppie. Natasha Wightman plays a much more hardy Mary Debenham, as if she’s just returned from six months fighting poachers in South Africa, yet she works as a very late ’90s TV movie heroine. Dylan Smith is very good (and very Italian) as Foscarelli, who is here better characterised than any other version of the story (including the novel) through little decisions by the screenwriter, such as having him actively assist with the workers removing the rockslide. The stand-out, perhaps not surprisingly, is Leslie Caron in the Princess Dragomiroff role. Here, she is Senora Alvarado, the widow of a South American dictator. For budgetary reasons (I’d assume), Caron is in very few scenes, but she smoulders into the room whenever she’s given the chance. La Caron is particularly notable in her interrogation scene, when she bemoans the plight of her country since the communists assassinated her husband!

The other suspects make less of an impact, with Nicolas Chagrin as Pierre-Michel, and Kai Wiesinger and Amira Cesar as the von Strauss couple, who are neatly updated to be adventurers due to their carefree, wealthy lifestyle. Finally, there’s Caroline Hubbard, played here by Meredith Baxter. Here, Hubbard is portrayed as a somewhat struggling actress, whose D-Grade fame rests on a recurring role in a sitcom. Baxter can’t quite tackle Lauren Bacall or Barbara Hershey, and the script never really gives Mrs. Hubbard a chance to shine, but she does prove nicely affronting as the film goes on.

In a more direct manner than the other two films, Carl Schenkel‘s direction constantly plays with the audience. There are constant cuts to people hiding items, having sudden ideas, all of which make sense to us on repeat viewing. (For instance, Mary Debenham finds Pierre Michel searching her luggage, and asks him – seemingly innocently – why he doesn’t search Poirot’s, leading to the later discovery of evidence in the detective’s bag.) Again, it’s hard for me to objectively rate whether the plot will be too obvious to newcomers, but I appreciate that – as was done a few times in Suchet’s film – the script shows how the clues become more and more unlikely as the film goes on, because the murderers must cover their tracks or create confusion, and – like normal people – they aren’t that good at doing so. There are a couple of moments – at least one with McQueen, and certainly the fact that we are told in the one scene that Helena is both very weak and preparing to climb the world’s tallest mountains – where the planting of clues seem far too obvious, but we get the sense that desperation is sinking in. On the other hand, this film is actually the most typically structured of the three, giving plenty of time to the lengthy interviews. (The side effect, I suppose, of having less suspects.)

As Poirot, Alfred Molina does a more-than-credible job. He remains stodgy, although perhaps a little more frank than period portrayals would ever be, and his slight celebrity gives him a power without making him a silly figure. However, while Molina is good, he’s not playing a quirky character in any respect. This Poirot is one-third fun dude (from his opening flirtations with Vera to his eventual lack of concern over the plot’s outcome), one-third earnest CBS procedural cop (Molina does a very good line in looking slightly doubtful at the suspects’ unlikely stories) and one-third old man. Yes, even though Poirot couldn’t be more than 50, the script has him pining for a vanished age he loves so much. Which is odd, since this film is clearly set in 2001, so why is he pining for something he never knew?  It’s perhaps an unfortunate holdover from an earlier plan to cast someone older, but Molina has a gravitas that makes it work… until you start thinking about it. Unfortunately, Poirot loses any sense of the ‘other’, all of his punctiliousness and most of his arrogance. Like Jonathan Cecil’s Hastings in the Peter Ustinov TV films, however, one can’t help thinking that much of what made Poirot the character we love was lost when he was transported out of his element and into the present-day. Is it worth it just so that we can be happy for him when he is reunited with his sexy, 25-year-old lover again in the film’s final scene? Possibly not.

Finally, then, there’s the denouement. Suchet’s film made much of Poirot’s moral decision here, with him making a choice that we believe he will never fully be certain of, and wordlessly marching away from the suspects fingering his rosary beads. The 1974 film allowed the murderers to cherish their moment, and let Poirot’s own feelings be left to the viewer’s imagination, but tinged the final scene with a touch of the sadness that compelled the crime in the first place. Here, we don’t really get that at all. Instead, in a return to the shallow, computer-game mythos that inspired the opening scenes, the murder is treated as merely a puzzle that has been solved. Poirot gives his famous two solutions, everyone looks uncomfortable for a minute, and then Monsieur Bouc consents to the plan. Okay, I’m being harsh on the actors, who do manage to look complicit as Poirot makes his pronouncement, but the film comes across as quite callous, since Poirot doesn’t even chastise the killers in the least. Perhaps we too would make that decision: certainly, Ratchett’s crimes were horrid, and the circumstances of his freedom were decidedly unfair. Yet, as a result, the film’s ending is solely that of the last piece of a jigsaw being put into place. Neither the killers, the innocent or the detective have to make any kind of tough decision. A mystery has been solved, and we can move on. It isn’t helped, mind you, by Poirot’s seeming respect for them, and the “what they did next” montage that the director tacks on to the end, which seems almost creepy in its adulation of the killers.

At the end of the day, 2001’s Murder on the Orient Express is a shadow of the two, far greater film versions that exist. It’s not the fault of Molina, who gives a very natural performance as someone who may bear a passing resemblance to Hercule Poirot, and – although none of them stand out besides Caron – the supporting cast all portray their characters well. There’s plenty of enjoyment in the mystery process in the script, too, but ultimately the film just feels as if it has been compiled because the network is willing to pay for it. There isn’t really any further impetus there. It’s not that it’s a terrible film, but that it won’t appeal to Christie fans and, really, when you have the lavishness of Finney’s film and the brooding moral debate of Suchet’s, there’s little else that this one can add to the discussion.

Stray observations:

  • In a rather lazy move, nothing is made of the pretend booking which Bouc overrides for Poirot. Instead, “Mr. Harris” is an actual guest who cancels at the last minute.
  • I do like how – during Poirot’s later musings and his “first” solution – we see flashbacks to an actual unknown man playing the part of the mysterious second conductor.
  • Foscarelli mentions the events of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which is a nice little touch for Christie fans in the audience.