Judgment on the Orient Express

Judgment on the Orient Express December 13, 2017

in which I take in my little review which couldn’t find a home. That’s why it’s written all professional-like:

Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express opens with a slapstick religious conflict and rises to a windswept, prosecutorial climax. In between there are gunshots and stabbings, and the great detective Hercule Poirot, sans his traditional embonpoint, leaps around a train trestle in pursuit of a suspect.

The setup of Express is simple. Mr. Ratchett, a shady American businessman (Johnny Depp, reptilian), is stabbed to death in his train cabin. Shortly thereafter the train rams into a snowdrift and gets stuck. Poirot’s investigation reveals that, as in so many of Agatha Christie’s novels, this new murder is the result of an old crime which was never brought to justice.

Christie conceived the Calais coach of her novel as a microcosm of society. Servants and princesses, the middle class and the shady rich, Italians and Germans and Hungarians. (Sadly, Branagh cuts Christie’s glorious line: “Poor creature, she’s a Swede.”) This might not seem like radical cosmopolitanism today—oh, you have six flavors of European?—but Christie’s Europe had just finished one World War and was hurling itself toward another. The novel’s bleak backstory is about the ways one crime can ripple out to damage countless lives—and link people together in a shared tragedy.

Branagh intensifies this idea of the train as microcosm: a tiny, mistrustful world. Christie only hinted that one character might be Jewish; Branagh makes it clear, and makes one character an Afro-British doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.). Characters spout hateful political beliefs they may or may not truly hold. The racial and political tensions of their day aren’t quite our own (there are halfhearted allusions to Stalin which never get worked out, probably because it’s harder to sympathize with that kind black doctor if you know he’s a Com-symp) but they are close enough to make the film feel relevant and even occasionally raw.

Express asks, “How far can a victim go to get justice?” That question only sharpens when we’re reminded, by the movie’s new diversity, that most people in this world have suffered from terrible unpunished crimes committed before they were even born.

The added action doesn’t work quite as well. The train-trestle chase is a great idea, but it’s shot in that superhero style where you can’t tell where anybody is. We should be wondering what will happen next, not what’s happening right now. This action style is not quite as horrible as the execrable, bland music. The opening, where Poirot yells at subordinates about eggs and then solves a religious crisis in the Holy Land by exposing a criminal to a mob, is a silly and unpleasant way to convey Poirot’s love of order and his exceptional intelligence. The one great added bit of drama is the climax, which now takes place at the mouth of a torchlit train tunnel. In a reversal of the classic Christie climax, the suspects confront the detective, seated before him in one long row like a tribunal.

This scene is the heart of the story. Branagh’s staging is brilliant, and his actors are up to the challenge (especially Michelle Pfeiffer as the man-crazy hussy with a secret identity). There’s just one problem: the script.

Christie’s novel balances the violence of the murder with the pitiable reason for its commission. The murder is an attempt to restore order broken by injustice. And so the final question becomes not who killed Ratchett, but how Poirot will respond to finding out the truth. Will Ratchett’s murder be prosecuted? Will it be excused? Will it, perhaps, be forgiven?

The novel is brisk and clipped. Some characters do indicate what they believe about justice, but Poirot’s own final verdict is rendered without speeches or posturing. Adaptations may make different choices: The 2010 adaptation with David Suchet, for example, is flamboyantly Catholic to the point of self-parody. Poirot prays his rosary throughout the film; he defends God’s power to forgive even the gravest sin; and by the end every criminal on that train, very much including the dead man, has felt well and truly guilty. Guilt is universal, and so judgment is chastened. The Suchet adaptation shows Ratchett as a human being degraded and tormented by the evil he has done, and just beginning to repent of it. None of this theology is in the novel.

Branagh’s Express goes in the opposite direction. The flashback to Ratchett’s murder is sufficiently horrible: shaking hands holding the knife, the train wheels pounding like a heartbeat. But then Poirot gives a speech about listening to his heart, blathers about right and wrong, and arrogates to himself the right to judge people as good or bad. In the novel this judgment was rendered by an anguished character at a moment of high emotion. Christie’s Poirot can judge if you’re a good cook, but not if you’re a good person. But Branagh’s Poirot declares: “There are no killers here, only people who deserve a chance to heal.” This new Poirot lectures the audience, excuses murder, and dares to perform God’s task of separating sheep from goats. He’s a Poirot for a culture confident that it can divide the world into heroes, whose crimes aren’t forgiven so much as rationalized, and “garbage people,” who must be despised and cast out.

Christie’s story goes out of its way to insist that in our justice system men are judged by a jury of their peers—by creatures like ourselves. But who on Branagh’s train is willing to admit that they might be a creature like Ratchett?

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