When he was an adolescent, Kenneth Branagh’s mother started reading detective fiction, and one title in particular — “Murder on the Orient Express” — really caught his eye. “It’s a great title,” said the actor-director, 56. “So clear, so direct, so punchy. And confident. I remember reading it back then and really ripping through it.”
By comparison, said Branagh — whose new adaptation of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel opens Friday, Nov. 10 — it took him seven attempts and 25 years to get through “War and Peace.”
“Now, I’m not saying ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is a better book,” said Branagh, puckishly, “but Tolstoy deals with so many characters that are so hard to follow, and Agatha Christie has about 15 who are potentially central to the action and you know who everyone is. What she does is a real juggling act” — and one that Branagh tries to emulate on screen in his highly stylized, visually lush adaptation set aboard a train bound from Istanbul to Paris, carrying a dozen potential murderers, and one nasty, ventilated corpse.
The movie features an international cast that includes Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Branagh himself — as the elaborately mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot. It departs from both the book, which began with a recap of a crime Poirot had just solved, and the 1974 movie, which recaps a different crime — the one Christie based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and which will be at the center of the slaying committed five years later, by a person or persons aboard the luxurious and, at one point, snowbound train.
Branagh’s version, with its script by Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”), begins in Jerusalem, with Poirot in the middle of solving an antiquities theft.
“I thought, ‘Let’s see Poirot in action. Start the movie with a dénouement,’ ” Branagh said, “so when he gets on the train we, the audience, already knows who he is, and how he’s smarter than the average bear.”
Branagh said he loved the ’74 film, “which was made by a master, Sidney Lumet, whom I had a chance to meet later in his life. He told me he wanted that movie to be a ‘romp.’ And that’s fine. I wanted our version to be entertaining, but I also wanted it to be about the brooding undercurrent in Christie’s novel, about the death of innocence. I needed to feel from everybody that we’re not just in a romp, but a situation which could mean life or death for everyone on board.”
As each variation on Poirot has made quite plain (including the David Suchet episodes on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!”), “Murder on the Orient Express” is not a vehicle that attracts, or even thrives, on what one would call understated acting.
“It’s very easy to chew the scenery,” laughed Josh Gad, who plays McQueen, secretary to Depp’s thuggish Ratchett. “Especially when you’re all in an intimate setting and there are so many people who could very well carry their own film, all working in conjunction to make an ensemble story.” He said it all came down to “Kenneth” and his diligence in giving everyone their own moment in the film, and doing so “in a way that doesn’t feel overwrought.”
Leslie Odom Jr. agreed. The actor, who originated the Aaron Burr role in “Hamilton,” plays Dr. Arbuthnot (originally Col. Arbuthnot), who is romantically involved with Daisy Ridley’s Mary Debenham. “The characters are in life-or-death circumstances and also, not everyone is who they appear to be,” he said. “So it lends itself to some big performances — which is why it attracts actors. There’s an opportunity to have some fun with the characters.”
Odom’s casting is untraditional; it’s hard to recall a black actor in a Christie adaptation at all, much less in a romantic entanglement. The fact Arbuthnot is a doctor in 1934, whose novelty someone remarks on, is explained in the dialogue, but the romance goes all but unmentioned. “It’s definitely in there, though,” Odom said; if you see the movie again, you understand their initial furtiveness. “People would have had opinions about that, and there’s a little bit of danger there. I think Arbuthnot and Debenham are on their way somewhere, Amsterdam or Paris — somewhere where they could make a life, have a family, a place there they’re going to feel safe.”
No one is safe aboard the Orient Express, of course, once the murder is discovered and Poirot is on the case. Speaking of which, what is that hard-shell piece of luggage the detective carries around from train to station? Well, it seems that for all the mustache in “Murder on the Orient Express,” there was going to be considerably more.
“We created this immense, swirling thing that Agatha Christie herself described as having a ‘tortured splendor,’ ” Branagh said. “It was a real introduction to me — when you have a mustache that immense, the level of maintenance is really significant. So that little hand case he carries though the movie contains every conceivable pair of scissors, combs, curling tongs, wax, nostril clippers, hair clippers, ear-hair clippers and brushes for the mustaches. And we had scenes of Poirot in full grooming mode. But in the end, due to the ruthless demands of pacing, we didn’t use it.”
“Hollywood is not in the business of making these epic, sweeping films anymore,” said Josh Gad, a member of the all-star cast of the latest “Murder on the Orient Express.” But even director Kenneth Branagh’s main inspiration, David Lean, was well aware that beautiful pictures are nothing without a compelling central figure — one like Hercule Poirot. Described by mystery novelist Agatha Christie as having an “egg-shaped head” and trouble “keeping his moustaches out of his soup,” he is the self-described “world’s greatest detective,” and a character into whom an actor can sink all his teeth, while indulging in some of the screen’s more outrageous French (actually Belgian) accents. (Charles Laughton was the first to play him, in 1928 on London’s West End.) Some of the principal Poirots are as follows:
KENNETH BRANAGH Directing himself in “Murder on the Orient Express,” Branagh certainly wears the most outrageous mustaches of any Poirot (Christie described them as “gigantic,” “immense” and “amazing.”) But his detective is also more ruminative than most, considering the crime at hand with a combination of emotional investment and philosophical distance.
DAVID SUCHET Now 71, Suchet, who has played everyone from Cardinal Woolsey to vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, is probably most closely identified with Poirot, whom he played for 13 seasons on the U.K.-produced series (shown here on PBS and A&E) and whose portrayal was said by Christie’s daughter to be the one her mother would have liked the most. Suchet’s Poirot was very precise, with a withering eye for the guilty.
PETER USTINOV Renaissance man of movies and tireless champion of UNICEF, Ustinov portrayed Poirot several times, including in “Death on the Nile” (1978), “Evil Under the Sun (1982) and “Thirteen at Dinner” (1985). He played Poirot the way he played most of his roles, with a twinkle. He also hosted the 1991 documentary, “Peter Ustinov on the Orient Express.”
ALBERT FINNEY Sidney Lumet’s take on Christie resulted in the star-studded 1974 “Murder on the Orient Express,” which found Finney playing a slightly sinister Poirot, an excitable sleuth who found great satisfaction in pinning down his suspects like flies to a board.
TONY RANDALL Yes, the Felix Unger of TV’s long-running “Odd Couple” played Poirot in 1965’s “The Alphabet Murders,” a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek takeoff on Christie, inspired by her 1936 novel, “The A.B.C. Murders.” Randall’s mustache looks moth-eaten.