Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded movie version of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” looks — based on the trailers — to be full of action and suspense. That will be something of a departure from the 1934 novel on which is based.
The novel, featuring Christie’s signature creation Hercule Poirot, is brilliant, but quiet. Following a brutal murder, Poirot interviews person after person on a snowbound train, searches the passengers’ luggage, and then engages his “little gray cells” to arrive at a solution. While the film trailers feature guns, no such weapons appear in the novel.
Branagh, who directed the movie and stars as Poirot, may be deviating from the source material, but he is certainly quite familiar with novel. Indeed, he reads a new unabridged audio version of Christie’s work.
His narration of the book is quite successful. Apart from a few shaky moments, he does a fine job delivering the many different accents — Belgian, French, English, Swedish, American, Italian, Greek — of the characters. He convincingly portrays female characters without overdoing it. His pacing and careful enunciation allow listeners to keep up with the detective’s lines of questioning without getting lost, and he is careful to never give away a clue by overemphasizing it in his delivery.
And how does the novel itself hold up? Quite well. Christie was a master of plot, even within the tricky confines of what amounts to a locked room mystery. She was also quite funny, and her humor serves this book well. Poirot is a legendary character, and he is expertly brought to life in one of his most famous cases. And the ending — not just the surprising solution, but the conclusion of the novel itself — is beautifully rendered.
The characters — including Poirot — do rely on broad stereotypes regarding ethnicity and gender to form some of their theories about who may have committed the crime. To contemporary readers, those moments stand out as unworthy of Christie’s gifts as creator of characters and a deviser of plots, but they are, perhaps, to be expected in a novel published in mid-1930s. It will be interesting to see whether such ideas will be baggage aboard the train in Branagh’s new on-screen interpretation.