Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express
The Simplon-Orient Express is one of the grand trains of Europe, running from Istanbul to Paris in sumptuous luxury. Remarkably, detective Hercule Poirot finds himself on this fabulous train on a return from a case in the Middle East. More remarkably, when the train is stranded by an avalanche in the Yugoslav mountains, an American gangster is brutally murdered in the compartment next to Poirot’s.
Snowbound for days, with a murderer on board, the little group of passengers look to Poirot to solve the crime – but whether they watch in hope or in fear is anybody’s guess.
Agatha Christie’s novels have sold over 2 billion copies, and Murder on the Orient Express may be the most popular. It has been adapted several times for movies, television, and radio. This most recent effort is simply stunning – whether the goal was to capture the exotic chaos of a street in 1930’s Jerusalem, to evoke the sounds and feelings of a time when rail travel was the standard and coal-burning steam engines ruled the rails, or to open up the cramped space of a railway carriage to allow a camera to sweep the cast.
But as Christie’s novels do, there are some unsettling conclusions – or lack of conclusion – for the reader or viewer to deal with.
The victims in Christie’s books tend to be wretched specimens, but the cast of suspects are often unlikeable as well. In this story, there is even a question whether a crime was committed or a justifiable act of retribution? Or was it, instead, simply an act of personal revenge? (Vengeance is mine, says the Lord) And what is the next step, the responsibility of the private detective who is neither an officer of the law nor a witness to the crime?
Kenneth Branagh’s characterization of Poirot is excellent – every bit as eccentric, but more formidable on screen than I had pictured from the books. Poirot delivers some excellent lines on the subject of morality and justice. At the very start, he tells an official, “There is right, and there is wrong. There is nothing in between.” When offered a princely sum to be a bodyguard for a shady art dealer, he replies, “I decline. I detect criminals; I do not protect them.”
At yet, at the end, the detective identifies the hands which killed the victim, and then washes his own hands of the matter. The train leaves Poirot at an intermediate station and proceeds with no one arrested. A murder has been committed, and a trainload of passengers knows who did it … but no one is held to account.
I saw this with several young adults from our family and one other, and we had a long discussion on the hour’s drive home. The best construction we could place on the affair was that Poirot was no more than a private citizen – he was not an official nor did he have a jurisdiction. When he explains the crime, he is offering his deductions of the crime, but that may not have be conclusive proof for legal purposes. At the same time, it’s an unsatisfying end.
Conclusion … The production is outstanding and the story, after all, is one of Christie’s most respected. However, the ending leaves justice in the lurch, suggesting that sometimes you can get away with murder – even with the world-known detective literally in the next room. Does good ultimately triumph? Yes, God gives us that assurance – but it may have to wait past the arrival of this train in Paris.
Good Art, Mixed Message – recommended with viewer discretion …
Listen to our discussion online!