Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express portrayed by David Suchet, tells the story of Hercule Poirot, the Belgian super-detective famous for his meticulous and unfailing process of solving crimes with order and method. But this time, he is faced with his most challenging mystery.
As he travels first-class on the Orient Express from Istanbul to England at the favor of fellow Belgian friend and Railway Director, Xavier Bouc, (Serge Hazanavicius) one of the fourteen passengers in his carriage, Samuel Ratchett, (Toby Jones) is murdered.
Amidst the hysteria of this news, a massive avalanche has stalled the train delaying the next stop by twenty-four hours. Bouc convinces a reluctant Poirot to solve the murder in this timeframe to keep his passengers from interrogation by a hostile foreign police force. As Poirot’s “little gray cells” begin to fire up, he uncovers the truth about Ratchett’s dark past and begins to discover the most probable suspect. But to truly solve this murder, he must also challenge his beloved process of order and method and surrender to his own moral compass, void of religion and law.
As a kid, my mother, an avid educator, would always talk about her favorite childhood mystery author, Agatha Christie. She’d go on and on about Poirot. I had never read any of the books, but because of her, I became familiar with the name. Years later, In 2017, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a revamped version of Murder on the Orient Express. It would also star some of my favorite actors; Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Dench & Leslie Odom Jr.. My husband and I are always searching for mystery thrillers, and as I recognized the title, I knew we had to see it. I thoroughly enjoyed Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. So much, that I went on a rampage for more. I found myself with a Poirot addiction reminiscent of what my mom described years before. After diligently searching, I stumbled upon old televised adaptations of Poirot on BritBox, and it was there that I was introduced to David Suchet. After watching the first episode, we thought, “this is cool, but he’s a very quirky version of Poirot compared to the more normal and somber Kenneth Branagh.” However, by the time we made it to the end of season one, David Suchet had won us over.
I want to delve into the differences between the portrayals of Poirot by Albert Finney, David Suchet & Kenneth Branagh.
For starters, Murder on the Orient Express as portrayed by David Suchet is an extended television episode that makes up the entire twelfth season. This far in, you build a relationship with Poirot. You come to understand how each case has affected him, the depth of his genius, his methods and religious beliefs, and you come to love his quirks because they make him personable and relatable. The other adaptations are a single movie. Consequently, the bond you’ll have with Poirot after watching 12 seasons differs greatly from a one-off movie experience. And although this is the major difference between the three most popular adaptations, there are a few other areas that separate them from one another; Morality, Genius & Likability.
Compared to Albert Finney & Kenneth Branagh adaptations, only David Suchet’s Poirot is portrayed as a devout Catholic and as a person deeply affected by injustice. Generally, the focal point by other actors portraying Poirot is his need for order and cleanliness as an obsessive compulsive. But David Suchet’s desire for order is directly tied to his need for good to beat evil. In this film, he is constantly facing his ideals of right and wrong, and through his faith in God and his self-imposed duty to uphold the law, he seeks to find balance and peace.
David Suchet’s version of this movie begins with Poirot delivering the verdict of a crime he has just solved. He passionately accuses a soldier of breaking the law in front of his superior. He is noticeably perturbed and subconsciously triggered by this soldier’s criminal behavior even though it doesn’t deserve the highest penalty. He drills into him piercingly and forcefully, wanting him to know shame and regret. Feeling the weight of his mistake and the wrath of Poirot’s delivery, the soldier impulsively takes his compatriate’s gun and commits suicide. Although Poirot does not outwardly admit to the error in his approach, dissatisfaction with the result lingers in the air.
In the following scene, he witnesses a group of male natives chasing a woman through town. They scream insults and throw stones to punish her for adultery. Poirot pays close attention to the scenario, seemingly disagreeing with the technique but understanding that the woman must be accountable for her choices. As a viewer, this is when you begin to see that the darkness of solving crimes has taken its toll on him. You feel the God-complex engulfing him like overgrown moss, and yet simultaneously you know that a rebellion to correct his own rigid moral system is brewing within.
Setting this tone is the major factor that made this adaptation my favorite, because without showing the rising conflict of right and wrong, there is no potency in the sacrifice he must make to solve the murder. Both Albert Finney & Kenneth Branagh versions begin with different approaches, none of which focus on morality and neither of which have an ending as heart wrenching as David Suchet’s.
Kenneth Branagh is a close second, but David Suchet’s portrayal of genius surpasses all. No detail goes without his observation. His understanding of human behavior is insurmountable. He always finds a way to string seemingly random occurrences and conversations together. He thrives on a meticulous understanding of events that make even the most faint misplaced behavior stick out like a sore thumb. He knows how many times Ratchett has been stabbed even though another number is offered. He knows the killer did not escape by window because there are no footprints. He knows Ratchett’s doctor is suffering beyond a toothache. He knows which of his passengers are lovers even if they are guised as friends. If Poirot was a boxer, he’d be Rocky Marciano, meaning, the method and the process he uses are undefeated.
Class & Likeability:
David Suchet has a knack for interacting with the lower classes of society. He does have an ego about his work, but his interaction with normal people throughout the series is mannerable, pleasant and uplifting. He knows the way that society views them because he himself is a foreigner that has had to put up a fight to earn respect. He is gentle with the lower class in ways Albery Finney never portrayed (I don’t think Albert’s character expressed much emotion altogether) and in ways Kenneth Branagh was only able to touch through his interaction with a child in the opening scene. David Suchet is likeable and classy. Yet, he is always firm in who he is and offers no apology for the things that set him apart.
The obnoxiousness of Poirot’s “magnificent moustache” was far exaggerated by both Finney & Branagh as both depictions of their sleeping scene on the train showed them in mustache bras and or full-faced hairnets. David Suchet simply keeps a portable heating device for his wax, which doubles in this movie as a contraption to read a burned hand-written note that becomes essential to solving the mystery.
In areas of moral necessity, genius, class and likability, David Suchet wins.
In closing, this was such a touching story because often we are faced with finding our own place on the continuum of right and wrong. As much as we like to believe that our morals are unchanging and unmovable anchors, they tend to be more fluid, especially when it comes to our own behavior. As we savior search, looking for the space of moral absolutes, the pendulum of right and wrong continues to swing. The question this movie is begging to be answered is, when there is no justice in the law, and God seems to allow discord, pain and travesty, what is the fundamentally right or wrong thing to do?