This classic mystery fan is always grateful when the modern press pays attention to anything related to the Golden Age, so it was with great delight that I received my latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, only to find the cast of the upcoming remake of Murder on the Orient Express splashed across the cover. Kenneth Branagh, noted actor and director, is exercising all his cinematic muscles here, helming the film and playing that famous Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. If his interpretation of Poirot’s splendid moustaches (seen above) casts any doubt as to his intentions here, the information supplied in the article should reassure the most skittish of Christie fans that one of her most famous tales is in good hands.
For example, the screenwriter, Michael Green, recently penned the film Logan, the final chapter in the saga of Wolverine, providing him with excellent practice in sorting out Christie’s complex plot. Branagh explains how attracted he was to the script’s approach to the novel: “The screenplay unleashed something very primal. I think we’re making a scarier film than people might imagine.”
Thank goodness for that. Christie’s 1934 novel is a rather dry piece about a dozen strangers trapped in a snowbound train car with a man who has been stabbed multiple times. I thought both the novel and the 1976 film missed out on some great opportunities here. Christie barely describes the wounds on the corpse, and the movie makes the cowardly decision of leaving Richard Widmark’s pajamas on his body while he’s being examined. We can only hope that, this time around, his eyes will be gouged out and his heart lie pumping feebly on the floor. That would enliven the proceedings immeasurably.
The article impressively displays Green’s affinity for the original material:
“Green also dragged Christie into the modern era. ‘Christie had a tendency to fill her books with 60-year-old English white people, which only takes you so far in terms of interest and casting.”
In other words, Green has wisely ignored Christie’s original description (and an important clue) of a vastly international assortment of passengers – German, Russian, Hungarian, American, Swedish, Italian, and so forth – to create a vastly international assortment of passengers – German, Russian, Hungarian, American, Spanish, Cuban, and so forth.
The Swedish missionary, a role that garnered the great Ingrid Bergman her third Oscar, has been reimagined as a Spanish missionary so that Penelope Cruz could play the part. The character’s name is no longer Greta Olssen but Pilar Estravados. (This makes for a nice Easter egg for true Christie fans, who I am sure will flock to this film to see how Branagh, Green and company have improved upon the original tale.)
Antonio Foscarelli, the Italian car dealer, was evidently considered too much of a “60-year-old English white” person, so he has been changed to Biniamino Marquez, a Cuban car dealer. I know I feel better now.
Green gets even more daring with his re-imagining of Colonel Arbuthnot, whose role as a British military man is pivotal to the storyline:
“The character of Colonel Arbuthnot was updated from a white English soldier to an American doctor of color (played by Leslie Odom, Jr.). ‘He’s a black doctor in the early 20th century,’ Odom says. ‘What kind of injustices might he have endured? What would that man have had to be made of to get to where he was?’ And how would other characters react to Arbuthnot being in a relationship with Daisy Ridley’s character, Mary Debenham? ‘Obviously that would have created a lot of trouble for them at that time,’ Odom says.”
Odom poses some wonderful questions, and one can only hope that the thin mystery plot will be seriously abbreviated to allow more focus on the trenchant story of an interracial couple in the 1930’s. It calls to mind the plotline of the interracial musician and the white heiress from Downton Abbey. That was a very popular show, although it would only have benefitted from throwing in a few murders and more interracial characters.
Johnny Depp, whose portrayal of Sweeney Todd on film puts the memory of the many stage actors who could actually sing the role to shame, has been cast in the pivotal role of Mr. Ratchett. I say “pivotal” because my previous knowledge of the novel and the 1974 film suggests that Mr. Ratchett is the object of somebody’s homicidal rage. But Branagh, whom the article reports is “cagey when discussing just how closely the plot of his film resembles that of the source material,” hints that he has some tricks up his sleeve there. In fact: “. . . the director shrugs off concerns that Christie aficionados will be able to anticipate some of the movie’s twists and turns.”
This news is more exciting to me than when the ITV turned the killers in The Body in the Library into lesbians or when producers wisely inserted Miss Marple into Why Didn’t They Ask Evans, and transformed that lighthearted affair into a cautionary tale about homicidal incest. Finally, somebody is going to fix Murder on the Orient Express so that it’s neither a faithful homage to the work of a fair to middling mystery author nor some tired exercise in nostalgia. Good for you, Christie estate!
And it only gets better, folks! The article provides “further proof that this is not your granny’s Christie”:
“The train in the film is stalled by an avalanche rather than a snowdrift, with the passengers stranded on a perilously high bridge – and Branagh’s detective is far more physically fit than his predecessors. ‘One of the earliest thoughts was to imagine Poirot not at the tail end of his career but still honing his craft,’ Green says. ‘That left us with the possibility of a man who still has some vitality, who is perfectly capable of hitting back if someone accused tries to hit him.’”
Everybody knows that Orient Express is bogged down in detection of clues, witness interviews and ratiocination. I’m hoping that Branagh’s Poirot can eschew the “little grey cells” and detect with his fists. Bonus points if the train falls off the cliff . . .
And I’ve saved the best for last. Branagh and Company had so much fun making Christie relevant for modern audiences that they want to do it again and again. Dame Judi Dench, who plays Princess Dragomiroff as “(supposedly) helpless but makes you feel there is more to her than meets the eye” (like Q in the Bond films, maybe), reportedly suggested that the cast return in different parts for each story.
This fills me with emotions that are beyond delight, and it behooves me to suggest a few possible sequels for the actor/director to tackle.
- Death on the Nile: Transport the whole thing to Barbados and call it Death on the Pirates of the Caribbean. Judi Dench, as Linnet Doyle, marries Johnny Depp’s “Captain” Simon Sparrow, but runs afoul of his tempestuous former lover, Pilar Estravados, played by Penelope Cruz. The finale takes place with Poirot gathering the suspects together during a blizzard on the top of the Matterhorn.
- Hercule Poirot’s Christmas: The title would be changed to Hercule Poirot’s Holidays. Simon Doyle, played in hideous old age make-up by Johnny Depp, invites his multi-cultural family home to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. His sons are played by Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Penelope Cruz. Derek Jacobi would play the tempestuous Pilar Estravados. (That man can do anything!)
- A Murder Is Announced: I really want to see what screenwriter Green would do when he gets his hands on this personal favorite. I imagine he would immediately remove it from the village to the gritty urban landscape and cut out all the “60-year-old white British” characters. Except, of course, for the lesbians. Kenneth Branagh, of course, would play Miss Marple.
See you at the movies!