Some films really take you by surprise. They creep up on you, seemingly out of nowhere, and defy any expectations you originally had. This is what it was like for me when I first watched director Philip Martin’s utterly brilliant reimagining of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous stories – Murder on the Orient Express.
I am referring to it as a film (because that is what it is, regardless what size screen it is viewed on), but it also a television episode; an instalment of ITV’s long-running series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. The series started life on ITV in 1989 with short, light, 50-minute episodes, adapted from Christie’s numerous short stories, with the wonderful David Suchet perfectly capturing the little Belgian detective’s mannerisms and eccentricities. In 2003, the production team behind the films took them in a new direction. A more cinematic feel was adopted. They concentrated only on full-length novels, rather than short stories. Longer works by Christie were adapted for the series in the past, some of them very well (The Mysterious Affair At Styles (1990) was the first, and a personal favourite of mine), but they all felt very televisual and kept rather too strictly to a series format. But from 2003 onwards the stories got darker, there were less jokes and a wider variety of directors were brought in to add their stamp to the series.
I am very glad Murder on the Orient Express was adapted later rather than earlier. The rights had been held back until 2008 (after a rather disastrous modern-day version upset the right-holders), but when ITV were given the go-ahead they treated the project with care. They employed BAFTA winner Philip Martin to direct, and screenwriter Stuart Harcourt (who had penned some of the company’s Miss Marple films) to craft a film that did justice to Christie’s original text while adding a new edge to it.
The new edge to the story comes largely from the change of tone. Other adaptations of the novel, the most famous being the Oscar winning Sidney Lumet film starring Albert Finney as Poirot, had gone for a more glamorous, warmer feel. Lumet’s version was a jolly murder mystery, and spiffing good fun. This film is very different. Right from the outset there is a series of shocking scenes; first a rather bloody suicide of an army officer, followed by the sight of an adulterous woman being stoned to death in the streets of Istanbul. Neither of these occur in the original text, but they set the stage for a discussion about what justice is right, and what is savagery. They also make it clear to the audience that this instalment of Poirot isn’t going to be a warm and cosy hot chocolate affair.
The level of violence in the film is surprising. The first episode of Poirot received a “U” certificate. This instalment earned itself a “15” rating (the highest the series has ever got) for containing “one scene of very strong violence”.
As the film develops, we are introduced to the faces that will become suspects when an American businessman is murdered on the famous train during Poirot’s journey back from Turkey to London. A collection of well known actors populate the carriages, including Brits Toby Jones, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, David Morrisey, and others you wouldn’t expect to see, such as The Tree of Life‘s Jessica Chastain (pictured below), German actor Susanne Lothar, and Hollywood star Barbara Hershey.
During Poirot’s journey, the train becomes stuck in a snow drift, and to make matters worse, there is a corpse in the room next to him. The businessman Samuel Ratchett has been stabbed to death multiple times. The manager of the train convinces Poirot to investigate the murder before the authorities arrive, so he sets about interviewing the passengers.
I am not going to give away the ending, but I believe many will already know it, some without even seeing any of the films or reading the book. I will, however, say that it is an audacious twist of a revelation – one which Christie executes brilliantly in her novel. But because the identity of the guilty party (and how Poirot deals with the situation) has become so famous, Harcourt’s script turns the tables on the viewer. New themes are introduced into the mix. I have already mentioned issues surrounding justice and savagery, and these are combined with discussions of a biblical nature. Religion is a very strong driving force in this adaptation, and there are many scenes which focus on Poirot’s Catholicism. The final reveal, when the viewer learns who killed Samuel Ratchett and why, is orchestrated so it gives way to a extremely powerful scene where the teachings of Jesus Christ are examined in light of what has taken place on the train. It’s immensely profound, deeply memorable, and soul-searchingly intense. It is also refreshing to see a work taking the messages of Christianity seriously and willing to bring them centre stage.
The script isn’t the only thing that lends this film its particular brand of cold, disturbing visual power and cinematic intelligence. The cinematography by Alan Almond (who has worked on projects as diverse as Foyle’s War and Kevin And Perry Go Large) introduces a claustrophobia-inducing edge to drama. Christian Henson’s superb music score magnificently conjures up a stirring, menacing atmosphere. He does away with the old classic chirpy Poirot tune and gives the film its own theme.
Few would think a series as fluffy and cosy as Agatha Christie’s Poirot would ever warrant such deep analysis and contemplation. But within the series are a selection of gems; films which go further than the constraints of the general TV drama and attempt to do something interesting, maybe even radical, with their material. This version of Murder on the Orient Express may infuriate some Christie purists, but in my opinion it is one of the most interesting book-to-screen adaptations made in recent years.
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010), directed by Philip Martin, is released on DVD in the UK by ITV Studios Home Entertainment. A blu-ray disc release is available via import from Spain.