BRANAGH TO THE RESCUE: “Not Your Granny’s Christie”

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.’”

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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.

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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!)
  3. 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!

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25 thoughts on “BRANAGH TO THE RESCUE: “Not Your Granny’s Christie”

    1. To tell you the truth, so do I. The 1965 TEN LITTLE INDIANS was trashy and sexy. But I reserve the right to be ineffably snarky before and after!

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    1. Thanks, Margot. Only, just think: if we tied Poirot to the train tracks, we’d be going back to pre-Christie days, to “The Perils of Pauline!” THE PERILS OF POIROT . . . 🙂

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  1. Le sigh.

    And here I was hoping that Branagh wasn’t gonna crap all over Christie. I’ll watch it, but not in the cinema.

    Was the reimagination of Marple really so successful that it’s worth it for the Christie estate to keep on “modernising” all her stories?

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  2. You can have honorary British status for such a display of wonderful sarcasm Brad!! I was dubious about this film when I saw Branagh had half a carpet factory on his face, but your post has decided me that I won’t watch it. I can’t bear to see Poirot so trashed and ruined. I think I would probably throw a tantrum in the cinema and have to dragged away from clawing at the screen or something.

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  3. Branagh has done such wonderful things with Shakespeare on film, so it’s not like he has no experience in updating a classic text while still remaining faitful to the source…which makes the implications here especially disappointing. I don’t mind The Rugstache, I have no problem with Poirot being younger and rather more physically fit, I’ll even take the dishevelled tie in that picture where he’s in front of the train (Nom d’un nom d’un nom!) but the plot, guys, the actual plot — like, can the plot of the book not also be the plot of the movie? And if you don’t like the plot of the book, can you pick a book whose plot you do like and film that?

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    1. He is actually quoted in the article about having just finished ROMEO AND JULIET, “and everyone knows how that ends!” I hope the implication here is that one doesn’t need to have a mystery changed to something unknown and inferior just to experience the pleasure of surprise.

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  4. At least you were able to get a hilarious post out of what’s clearly going to be a terrible film. Why do so many screenwriters and directors think that they’re better than Christie? One would think that the sales of her books alone might give a hint that she knew her business.

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  5. 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.

    Well, at least we know Dame Dench is a fan of American Crime. May we please suggest to her that she tries to get a role in it rather than doing to Christie what Jack Benny did to Shakespeare?

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  6. *bangs head on desk* ….cries off. . .

    Strains of “why, oh WHY?” can be heard in the near distance

    ….Speechless. . .

    GREAT piece….+10 for exquisite snark.

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  7. I feel exactly the same as you do, Brad. I was horrified when I saw the liberties taken with the cast. What so many film makers do not understand is that Christie was writing of a specific era peopled with specific characters whom she knew intimately. The time and its anomalies was always part of the charm. And you are perfectly right, the characters were of various nationalities in this particular book.

    Actually, it would have been better to have Depp play Poirot and Branagh play Ratchett – more physically in tune with Christie’s characterizations. But what does it matter if they’ve changed the whole plot. How can you improve on perfection? Not saying that all Christie books were perfect, but this one to my mind, certainly was. And don’t get me started on Poirot’s mustache. Jeez.

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  8. Christie herself was stuck in a snowdrift on the Orient Express, along with an international cast of characters. She thought it might make a good book. She was right. If her books are so terrrible, WHY do people keep adapting them? Because anything with her name on it sells – well I wonder why that is? See Mrs McGinty’s Dead for her thoughts on adaptations… It is, of course, full of 60-year-old white upper-class English men like the young suspect, the young people who may be the children of past murderesses, the young girl who works in the Post Office, the vulgar young lady who works in the estate agents, the young writer who is adapting the works of Ariadne Oliver, all his young actor friends, the young couple who have Poirot to stay…

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