For the distinguished crime novelist PD James, Agatha Christie’s distinctive contribution to the genre lies not in thematic complexity nor stylistic prowess, but in the meticulous fashioning of mysteries. In her 2009 book Talking About Detective Fiction, James wrote that Christie:
… is a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practised cunning … Game after game we are confident that this time we will turn up the card with the face of the true murderer, and time after time she defeats us.
If James is correct, however, and the satisfaction of a Christie story comes from its surprising plotting, then Kenneth Branagh’s new film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express would appear to be in difficulty.
It might be stretching things to claim that the plot of Murder on the Orient Express, written by Christie in 1934, is as familiar as that of Hamlet. Nevertheless, the identity in this instance of “the true murderer” is part of global cultural knowledge. Branagh’s film is after all merely the latest in a series of adaptations that include work for the big screen (Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning 1974 version) and for TV (in 2001 and 2010), as well as for BBC Radio (1992-93).
The plot’s secrets have also been disclosed in other books, films and TV shows with wide popular reach. An episode of Doctor Who in 2008, featuring Agatha Christie as a character, reveals “who did it”. Intriguingly, even Christie herself gave the attentive reader clues as to what happened on the Orient Express when she revived the character of Hercule Poirot in Cards on the Table (1936).
So, while some people may still be unfamiliar with the outcome of Murder on the Orient Express, many others will already be knowledgeable. Why, then, choose to watch Branagh’s film, with its unfolding of a familiar storyline? Christie’s own casual approach to narrative secrets in Cards on the Table is helpful here in freeing us from obsession with plot and prompting us to look instead for other sources of interest, both thematic and stylistic.
Recent critical approaches to Christie’s fiction have explored its constructions of gender, sexuality, class and nation. Studies such as JC Bernthal’s Queering Agatha Christie (2016) have given the work new life, helping to free it from nostalgic trappings of vicarage and country house. Such revisionism, prompted by current social issues, is available not only to scholars but to anyone who adapts Christie.
In Branagh’s film, unfortunately, there are few signs the source material from the 1930s has been radically rethought. True, Colonel Arbuthnot is no longer the white British officer of the novel – but instead an African-American doctor. Elsewhere, however, the political and cultural traditions of Christie’s own period survive intact. Branagh’s Poirot, for example, reasserts a robust masculinity that contrasts with the vulnerability and torment conveyed by David Suchet in the 2010 ITV adaptation.
The new adaptation is in other respects, too, less abrasive than its screen predecessors. It opens in bright sunlight, unlike Lumet’s big-screen version that begins visually and acoustically like film noir. It also avoids the violence of the ITV adaptation, which starts with a woman’s stoning in Istanbul and later shows the villain’s murder in all its goriness.
“Let horizons, décors and fashions lull you asleep,” as the Orient Express’s own website puts it. Branagh’s adaptation largely follows the comfortable rhythms of the luxury train from which it takes its title. Nostalgia powers this approach to Christie’s material, rather than ruder sources of energy.
Exercising the eye
Box office returns indicate that Murder on the Orient Express is currently the most popular film in the UK. Since it does not rewrite Christie’s plot, however, or offer significant thematic innovations, what might be the secret of its success?
Here it may be helpful to turn to very early film history and what has been called the “cinema of attractions”. This term refers to a body of films that offered exciting or unusual spectacles, rather than complex stories. The new Murder on the Orient Express should be thought of as a lavishly resourced “attraction” of this kind that is thereby able to enthuse viewers who know in advance whodunnit.
Where the narrative is familiar to them, spectators may instead be diverted by identifying the film’s many stars. The camera alights successively on actors who include Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer. There is the pleasure, too, of comparing Branagh visually and dramatically with earlier screen versions of Poirot.
“It is an exercise, this, of the brain,” says Poirot in Christie’s novel as clues accumulate. Audiences already knowing the solution to the puzzle, however, will find the new film chiefly exercising their eyes instead. Where there is mental challenge, it may be to assess the effects of a high-angle interior shot, say, not to work out whose embroidered handkerchief was left in the dead man’s compartment.
In a short provocation called In Defense of Spoilers, Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that worrying about revealing a film’s storyline is not “a fit activity for grown-ups”. It exhibits narrow thinking that “privileges plot over style”. Why, asks Rosenbaum, is it frowned upon to say Orson Welles’ 1958 masterpiece Touch of Evil “begins with a time bomb exploding but [not] to say that the movie begins with a lengthy crane shot?”
It is thus not bad manners to give away the new film’s stylistic features. Branagh has chosen, for example, to use large-format, 65mm stock which gives a rich texture. There are swooping panoramas and extended tracking shots that impart movement, even as the train is stuck in snow. Such visual detailing is not secondary or unimportant, however, but actually essential to the pleasure of those watching who already know who wielded the knife.