FILM: “Murder On The Orient Express”

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“My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”

Trains. Humans have invented all sorts of ways to move themselves around quicker than by foot, but there is something oddly captivating about a train. In the real world, we have such famous vehicles as the Mallard, and the Flying Scotsman. In fiction, there’s the Hogwarts Express, the Ada Lovelace, and who could forget Thomas the Tank Engine? But there is, to my mind, just one train that hangs large in both the fictional world and our own. And as a Christie fan of the highest order, as regular readers of my blog will know, there was no way I was going to let this film pass without a review. Ladies and gentlemen, please, all aboard, the Orient Express.

For the few who don’t know, this story takes place aboard the Orient Express, a luxurious train that, for over a hundred years, ran travellers – usually wealthy ones – from Istanbul to London across Europe. On this particular journey, Hercule Poirot finds himself aboard with a number of passengers, all of whom seem to be keeping something quiet.

Along the journey, an avalanche derails the train and everyone is stuck in the middle of the mountains until rescue comes. To make matters worse, one of the passengers has been murdered. The stabbed body is surrounded by potential clues, and with Poirot on board, it seems inevitable that the moving finger will soon settle on the killer. But, the eternal question remains – whodunnit?

I’ll start positive. The film perfectly captures the lavishness and wealth of Poirot’s world. Christie almost never put him anywhere unsuitable, and he was forever found only in the most sumptuous surroundings, be they trains, boats or country houses. The Orient Express was the last word in luxury, and the beautiful scenery and set design of this film helps cement that. There are also some interesting directorial decisions made. The discovery and study of the body is filmed entirely from overhead. The film makes great use of the train’s length and the glass panels throughout the carriages. While in the novel, the drama takes place almost exclusively inside the train, here we venture off a couple of times, with each character questioned in different surroundings, leading to everyone lined up at a table in the snow like the Last Supper when the reveal occurs. Since the reveal is one of literature’s worst kept secrets, the real magic here lies in seeing how Poirot will solve it, rather than who is responsible. I will not, however, be revealing the ending here.

The characters are great, too, and while some don’t get quite enough screen time, everyone is pulling out the stops and many chew the scenery like there wasn’t time for lunch. Branagh, as Poirot, is still a decision I’ll never understand. The film industry apparently stopped saying “no” to him a long time ago. I like Branagh, he’s talented, but talent can only go so far and doesn’t mean you can play anyone.

Which leads me nicely onto my few very crucial complaints regarding the plot.

Firstly, Poirot is not an action hero. He does not run after criminals, and he does not engage first-hand in dangerous activities. He has never had a romantic relationship, and if he has, it is none of our concern and has no bearing on the plot. He is not as young as Branagh is playing him, and actually, whatever Christie herself said regarding the moustache, it does not look like that. It’s incredibly distracting.

Perhaps we were spoiled with David Suchet in the role for so long, but he provides, to me and many others, the pinnacle of a Poirot performance. Here, Branagh is not suited to the role. It’s a shame, because around him every single other member of the cast shines. The cream of the acting world is riding this train, including Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Leslie Odom Jr. I confess that seeing everyone arrive one by one did give me slight goosebumps.

It’s not a terrible film. It’s beautiful, and Christie’s original, wonderful plot is still in place, but it lacks something. I was quite happy to accept it as a one-off, but I shouldn’t have been surprised when the ending provided a sequel hook. Of course this’ll be run into the ground all the while it can make money. But all the luxury of a stunning train and all the wise deductions of a mustachioed Belgian can’t quite save it. I’m sure the film will do well, and I hope it introduces more people to Christie’s amazing novels, but Branagh is not and never will be Poirot, and I’m afraid I’m finding it hard to look past the facial hair.

#NotMyPoirot

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Crooked House” by Agatha Christie (1949)

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crooked house

It’s not just the house that’s crooked…

“I first came to know Sophia Leonides in Egypt towards the end of the war.”

The anticipation whenever I pick up a new Christie is palpable, and I was particularly keen for this one because Dame Agatha herself declares it is one of her best. The story flowed very naturally, she says, and it is one of her special favourites.

During the Second World War, our hero Charles Hayward meets the beautiful and beguiling Sophia Leonides. She doesn’t reveal much about herself but he is determined to marry her. Finally, she reveals that she is from a very wealthy family and must soon return home. She will not become engaged yet, but when the war is over, Charles is welcome to come and find her.

True to his word, the war ends and Charles heads to London to find his love, only things have changed. When they meet, she reveals that her grandfather, the rich and kind Aristide Leonides, has been murdered in his house. Sophia won’t marry him until they have any answer. Charles calls upon his father, a policeman at Scotland Yard, and they begin exploring the situation.

Charles heads to the Leonides family home, a huge, sprawling mansion with too many gables; a house that seems most definitely crooked. And it is packed to the rafters with family members who have, for one reason or another, had to move back home. There’s Aristide’s sons Roger and Philip, their wives Clemency and Magda, Philip’s children Sophia, Eustace and Josephine, Aristide’s spinster sister-in-law Edith and his second wife Brenda, who is fifty years his junior and the most obvious suspect. A young woman marries an old man for money and bumps him off. Easy, let’s go home for tea and crumpets.

Although, despite the animosity between Brenda and the rest of the family, Sophia is certain that Brenda is innocent. Brenda, too, naturally claims innocence, but is it all a front? Is she having an affair with the children’s tutor? Why are none of the doors ever locked? And what happened to Aristide’s will?

There’s a great cast in this one, all related and no one supposedly to have been on particularly bad terms with the victim. Everyone has the means, and everyone has an opportunity, but finding a motive is proving far more difficult. I swung my accusing finger about quite a lot for the first few chapters, but eventually settled on who I thought did it. Strangely of all, I was right. It’s the first time since I started reading Christie that I’ve been correct about whodunnit. Once you know, as well, it becomes frighteningly obvious, but then again, it always does.

My guess also played quite nicely into a theme of the book. Everyone thinks Brenda did it, so everyone begins looking for that solution. When Charles comes up with a theory, he starts trying to twist the evidence to suit him. I was doing the same.

I can definitely see why Christie was so proud of this one, because it’s a really great addition to her bibliography. Once again, she shows how she took the rulebook of writing crime fiction and threw it out of the window. Ingenious.