Masterpiece Mystery kicked off its 2011 season with an encore presentation of last year's Murder on the Orient Express, based on the novel by Agatha Christie. Orient Express is perhaps one of Christie's best-known novels, and with good reason. It's a terrific introduction to one of her most famous sleuths, the inimitable Hercule Poirot, and thanks to a sprawling cast it lends itself to colorful adaptations (it's been filmed two times prior to this). Since I did a terrible job keeping up with Mystery reviews last year, I'm hoping that PBS's decision to air encore presentations of Poirot and Marple episodes will afford me the chance (and the incentive) to bring my Masterpiece Mystery page up-to-date. Here's the story summary from the PBS website:
Hercule Poirot is visiting Istanbul, but is called back to London to work on a case. Poirot's old acquaintance Xavier Bouc, who is director of the Orient Express, secures him a last-minute ticket on the impressive train. The train is completely booked, carrying an eclectic group of passengers such as Princess Dragomiroff and her nervous maid, Hildegarde Schmidt, English governess Mary Debenham and Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson.David Suchet's portrayal of Poirot almost from the time he started bringing Christie's Belgian sleuth to life (in 1989, can you believe it?). I've also read the novel Murder on the Orient Express two or three times at least. So I feel like I have a fairly good handle on Poirot's character and the source material (although admittedly it's been a couple of years since I've re-read the book). That's why the tonal shift, established with the opening scenes of this film, is somewhat inexplicable to me. The script (penned by Stewart Harcourt, a veteran of the Marple series) adds two scenes not found in the novel that set a darker tone for the story and Poirot's character than is warranted, in my opinion. The first scene sees Poirot drive an army officer in Palestine to suicide when he is caught lying after Poirot's investigation. This tragedy is followed by another, when Poirot witnesses mob mentality take over the streets of Istanbul when a woman is stoned to death for committing adultery. The senselessness of both situations - and perhaps a niggling sense of guilt for failing to stop the tragedies - puts Poirot in an extremely foul, introspective mood and leads him to ruminate on the nature of justice. It is perhaps not as black and white as he would like to think.
During the journey, ruthless American businessman Samuel Ratchett approaches Poirot. Ratchett cryptically explains to Poirot that he needs to give something back before he can be forgiven, but fears he'll be murdered in the meantime. He asks Poirot for protection, offering a large sum of money, but Poirot refuses. The next morning, Poirot awakens to find the train stuck in a snowdrift and Ratchett dead.
Aided by Dr. Constantine, Poirot examines the murder scene and finds a variety of confusing clues. He interviews those who last saw Ratchett alive: his manservant Edward Masterman, personal assistant Hector MacQueen, and conductor Pierre Michel before making a striking realization about Ratchett. The evidence points towards a particular explanation for the murder, but Poirot also considers a darker, alternative theory. Isolated by the snow and potentially on the train with a killer, Poirot is embroiled in one of the most vexing cases of career, and will soon be forced to make one of the hardest decisions of his life.
Most of the time I really don't mind when scripts add scenes or rework Christie's novels if the essence of the main characters I love (i.e. Poirot or Miss Marple) remain essentially true to themselves (notable exceptions being the completely unnecessary incest subplot in Marple's Murder is Easy). The opening scenes of Orient Express are, in my estimation, completely unnecessary additions to the story and set a darker tone than I'd prefer for one of my favorite Christie mysteries, finally starring my favorite incarnation of Poirot. Poirot comes across as so depressed, moody, and angry by turns at various times throughout this adaptation that I felt as though my beloved sleuth had aged at least twenty years, completely unnecessarily to boot. That said, I didn't hate this adaptation - anything starring Suchet as Poirot is worth watching at least once in my opinion, and a stellar cast and glorious period detail make this production a feast for the eyes. However, when "ranking" film adaptations of Orient Express, this one sadly has to fall a tick below the 1974 Albert Finney-as-Poirot film version (believe it or not...).
Christie created one of her most memorable, colorful casts of characters when she penned Orient Express, and any film version is a prime opportunity to gather a slew of famous faces to take part in the famous whodunit. As the director of the line Xavier Bouc (Serge Hazanavicius), an old Poirot acquaintance, tells the detective, the Orient Express is one of the few places on Earth that serves as a "great equalizer," where commoners can mingle with royalty, all taking advantage of the line's cross-country transportation abilities. Where else would such unlikely companions find themselves sharing the same dining car - except, perhaps, in an open republic of a society like America.
The linchpin of the piece is the abrasive American businessman Samuel Rachett (Toby Jones), who attempts to hire Poirot for protection since he's convinced he's the target of a murderous plot. Poirot takes an instant dislike to Rachett and refuses the man's proffered offer of an exorbitantly high fee. I'm hard-pressed to imagine a better choice than Jones to portray the slimy Ratchett. I'm sure he's a perfectly lovely individual in person, but to be blunt he looks so...odd, I guess you could say...that when he's playing the villain it's completely believable. The only positive role of Jones's that comes to mind is his turn as the voice of Dobby the elf in the Harry Potter films. The day after Poirot's refusal, the occupants of the coach wake up to find the train stuck in a snowdrift, and Ratchett brutally murdered in his cabin.
Ratchett's murder forces Poirot to take a closer look at his fellow passengers, since as the only remotely qualified investigator on board he's recruited to apply "his little grey cells" to the problem of who killed the businessman. The clues don't seem to add up - twelve knife wounds were inflicted, all at varying angles and with different degrees of force, a burnt paper fragment with the letters "AISY ARMS," a monogrammed woman's handkerchief, a button from a conductor's uniform, Ratchett's missing cash, and the confusing accounts of the night's activities from the passengers combine to make a puzzling snarl for Poirot to unravel. Poirot being Poirot, he quickly draws the conclusion that Ratchett was in fact none other than Cassetti, a notorious gangster responsible for the kidnap and murder of the American Daisy Armstrong. The shocking crime - and Cassetti's subsequent, and sickening, acquittal - destroyed the Armstrong family. And if you went into this film unfamiliar with the story, that mess of unlikely suspects and confusing clues is the genius of Christie's novel. In an enclosed, defined space, how can Poirot divine the killer when nothing adds up and everything seems unrelated?
Several beloved, familiar faces make up the cast of suspects, and I just want to spotlight some favorites. David Morrissey, most recently seen in South Riding, plays Colonel Arbuthnot, Daisy's father's best friend in the service. In a huge ensemble cast like this, Morrissey doesn't get a great deal of screentime, but it's refreshing to see him play a more noble, driven character - as opposed to the mess he plays in South Riding. I do adore his voice, and he looks quite dashing in the late 1930s-era suits. It was also a treat to see another Masterpiece vet, Hugh Bonneville, make an appearance as Edward Masterman, Ratchett's butler and previously Daisy's father's orderly in the army. Bonneville, of course, made a big splash on Masterpiece earlier this year anchoring Downton Abbey as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham.
I was thrilled to see this production cast an old favorite of mine, actor Samuel West, as Dr. Constantine, the Armstrong family doctor and the conspirators' first line of defense in attempting to divert Poirot's line of investigation. I developed a huge crush on West when he played the young Caspian in the old made-for-TV production of Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Following that turn, he played the ill-fated Leonard Best in Howard's End, Mr. Elliot in some people's favorite version of Persuasion, St. John Rivers in the 1996 version of Jane Eyre, as well as appearances in Hornblower and Foyle's War. Sadly, the man has never achieved the kind of on-screen success and exposure that I think he deserves, so it's always a treat to spot him in a new role.
Eileen Atkins is another cast standout, playing Princess Dragomiroff, godmother to the ill-fated Daisy's mother. Atkins is one of a handful of grand British actresses who own the screen just by showing up. As Princess Dragomiroff, Atkins is mesmerizing - regal, cold, and calculating, she knows she's taken a calculated risk by traveling on the Orient Express and is prepared to accept the consequences of her actions. If anyone is going to carry off the whole Russian princess thing, it's Atkins. She most recently appeared on Masterpiece as Lady Maud in the highly enjoyable "re-boot" of Upstairs Downstairs, and is a veteran of Cranford and the Marple series, to name just a few of the credits in her illustrious career.
This may not be a favorite Poirot episode, but it is certainly one of the most visually stunning. Everything about this production is top-notch, from the clothing to the detail in the train compartments. This film truly brings a glittering, lost era to vibrant life, and makes me desperately wish I'd been around to travel the Orient Express in its heyday. While Christie's story, and Poirot's ultimate decision regarding the fate of the train passengers, raises some interesting questions about the nature of justice, I do feel like the ultimate tone of this film is "off" when compared to the book and Suchet's previous performances as Poirot. However, the concluding scene, with its stark, snowy-white backdrop, is stunningly well-filmed.
Whether you're an old-time Christie fan or a newbie, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this film if you caught its rebroadcast last night!