There’s a touch of class in cinemas this week as Kenneth Branagh revisits the whodunit thriller in Murder on the Orient Express…
This is a movie that proves that some classes of stories will never expire, but just age like cheese or fine wine. Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic novel is coming 43 years after Sidney Lumet brought it to the big screen and it hasn’t aged a day! What is it about the whodunit that keeps it so perfectly preserved? If we consider the history, we just might find the answer!
Agatha Christie published Murder on the Orient Express in 1934, slap bang in the middle of the “Golden Age” of detective fiction (which spanned from the 1920s through to the ‘50s). An evolved from of Gothic literature, the whodunit had a particularly large pull with women readerships as the genre was dominated by authors such as Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Christianna Brand and published in magazines and periodicals (a format publically open but often subscribed to by women). For the city’s bored housewives, the short and engaging thrillers were the perfect voyeuristic escape from –what I assume was- a mundane or repetitive reality into worlds of elegance, intrigue, mystery, and sin. Along comes the advent of moving pictures and these already popular stories get elevated to a whole new level!
Sidney Lumet first adapted Christie’s novel for the big screen in 1974 and –from working in retail- I can tell you that this version still brings in customers. With the release of Branagh’s remake, sales of the original film have skyrocketed! It really is no wonder when you look at the many ways in which you can enjoy the story.
Level number one –of course- is the classic detective story, which Branagh re-imagines beautifully. For famous detective Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh himself), a lavish train journey turns into a hunt for a murderer when one of the passengers is killed and he discovers that everyone on board has a motive. There are no new-fangled experiments with this modern movie it’s purely a return to basics with all the classic tricks of the genre working to create suspense, confusion, and excitement. We’ve got plot misdirection, red herrings, double identities, and the timeless race against the clock, all shot in a very sophisticated way against this lavish background that makes you want to time travel.
That’s the second layer: the authenticity and its voyeuristic impact. There is a breathtaking amount of detail put into the authenticity of the set, costumes, and makeup design. Despite being helplessly captivated by Branagh’s majestic facial hair, you can spend a large portion of the film marveling at the lavishness of the train itself as well as the gorgeous costumes of the characters. This attention to detail amps up the voyeuristic clout of the story by making it physical, glamorous, and enticing to a contemporary audience.
The final layer is the turn of events. After all this delicious suspense and events that have our minds racing to find the answers, the ending –don’t worry I’m not going to spoil it- is both shocking and beautiful. Depicted in a way akin to a Shakespearean tragedy, it brings a different genre level into the mix and shows off Branagh’s penchant for serious drama: remember that this guy brought us adaptations of Hamlet (1996), Henry V (1989), and Frankenstein (1994).
The poster might scream, “camp murder mystery”, but the film itself proves to be more than just another thriller. Branagh’s sophisticated knowledge of the story’s appeal is a wonderful insight into genre and it shows that there are stories out there that will undoubtedly outlive us all!