Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New Murder on the Orient Express (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

For some time now David Suchet has been playing Agatha Christie's most famous (and eccentric) detective, Hercule Poirot.  Along the way he has actually revisited several tales that had been filmed previously--The ABC Murders (in which Tony Randall played the great detective) as well as Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile (starring Peter Ustinov).  Now a new version of what is arguably Dame Agatha's most famous mystery--Murder on the Orient Express.  No small feat, given the reputation of the star-studded first version, with such luminaries as Albert Finney, Lauren Becall, Ingrid Bergman and John Gielgud.

This version, like many of the current versions, takes a different direction than previous ones.  One trope common to most Christie adaptations is shredded away almost instantly.  Like a real train, this Orient Express is in fact crowded.  Trapped in a snow drift, they lose power and passengers are soon huddling together for warmth, visible only by candlelight.  The comfort of these drawing room murder mysteries is gone--bringing into sharp relief the emotional turmoil inherent in the tale.  Not merely for witnesses, but for Poirot himself! 

Of course the basis story is essentially present.  The Calais coach en route to Paris from Istanbul is surprisingly full for winter.  At the last moment the director of the train line insists upon finding Poirot a berth.  Passengers include a Russian Princess and her maid, a Missionary, a British Army Officer, a Hungarian noble couple, a physician, a car salesman, etc.  One passenger, the unpleasant Mr. Ratchet (Toby Jones--you might know him as the Dream Lord from Doctor Who) wants to hire Poirot as protection--against what specifically he refuses to say.  Poirot refuses and within a day Ratchet is discovered dead, stabbed to death in the middle of the night.  Meanwhile, the train has hit a snow drift trapping and the passengers for at least a day or two.  Poirot, at the director's insistence, investigates--and comes across one of the most startling solutions in his career.  Much centers around the true identity of the victim--a vicious criminal named Cassetti, responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong five years earlier.  This crime set off an avalanche of tragedy.  The mother miscarried and died upon news of her child's corpse being found.  The father, a war hero, killed himself--as did a French maid who fell under suspicion but was later proven totally innocent.

What fascinates is how this version really plays up the moral ambiguity.  Nowhere more in the short-lived relationship between Poirot and the person who proves his true antagonist--Miss Debanham (Vanessa Redgrave in the 1974 film, now played by Jessica Chastain).  Before the train departs, Poirot and she are both witness to a terrible sight--a man leading a crowd to chase down, then stone to death his wife whom he claims to having been unfaithful.  Poirot, having just left a case wherein a man committed suicide after having been proven a liar (he panicked when someone he knew was killed in an accident) agrees this was "unpleasant" but also "she knew the rules."  Miss Debanham sees further, that even if guilty that poor woman killed no one.  How could that have been justice?  Later in the story Poirot also meets Greta Ohlsson,  who is his own morality taken to extremes.  Slightly unstable, clearly traumatized, she proclaims Catholic doctrine wrong with its redemption and forgiveness--there are some crimes, she insists, God CANNOT forgive.  And top of the list she puts violence against children.

Poirot's own Catholicism is on display in this film.  Interestingly, he prays at the same time as does the victim.  The Detective utters some homilies which seem sincere, while Ratchet/Cassetti almost weeps--but with more fear than contrition.  Or so it seems.

Almost everyone reading this realizes who killed Cassetti.  Everyone did it--all but Poirot himself and the director of the train line.  Friends, relatives, loyal members of the Armstrong household--each had resolved to hunt down the man who murdered a child and destroyed so many lives.  The gentle-seeming Governess, Miss Dabenham, is the ringleader--and her motivation, like the others', is so clearly an attempt to ease the horrible pain of an evil that shredded their lives.  She herself was left with a useless right arm (from being bludgeoned the night of the kidnapping).  Yet even this, a kind of vigilate's fantasy, is not so clear-cut.  Princess Dragomiroff, beloved godmother to the late Mrs. Armstrong, recounts the murder in a way that both excites and chills.  In this version, Cassetti was conscious for his murder--and the Princess' words "You will soon be in Hell...did you think we would not hunt you...?" were the last he ever heard.

The conflict treaded upon so carefully in the 1974 motion picture presents itself here as far more raw.  Poirot does not wish to let these people get away with it.  He makes an impassioned case.  Without law, he says, we are barbarians.  When the law and justice fail, that is the time to raise them even higher--not abandon them in the name of vengeance!  Colonel Abuthnot (Sean Connery in 1974, David Morrissey now) actually draws his gun to insure keeping the secret, until Mary Debanham (whom he loves) virtually throws herself on the gun to stop him.  Likewise, the others will not hear of it.  They executed a guilty man.  They will not slaughter someone else to keep a secret.  Bad enough to have to live with committing one murder, however justified!

In the most famous film of this story, Poirot is troubled enough to let  someone else make the decision.  But in this version, allowing anyone else to do that is unthinkable.  He will either tell the authorities the truth, or go along with the lie--and that he even considers the latter hits him like an earthquake.  The straightforward, even ruthless man who begins this journey to Paris is not quite the same person who emerges from Orient Express a few days later.  And he knows it.  We can see it in his haunted eyes.

Just as we can see her knowledge that they have done this to him in the gaze of Miss Debanham.

4 comments:

Bertena said...

Wow.. Awesome article!

Abby said...

Very good review! I loved the first movie that was made of this one, but I'm thinking I might watch this one as well.

Amy said...

Wow, I need to look this up.

Someone spoiled me before I first read Murder on the Orient Express, though, and I'm still mad about it. =(

Mirza Ghalib Shayari said...

Wow! Reading this book made me realize that I was missing a LOT before this series. Amazing. Just spectacular!!