Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has been adapted for audiences around the world roughly seven times (including radio, TV, film, and even a computer game) since its publication in 1934. The appeal is pretty easy to figure: there’s the opulent luxury train setting, for one, and the ensemble of characters — perfect for a stacked cast of celebrity performances — for another.
But another reason the story remains a favorite of the genre is that the resolution stands apart from most other murder mysteries. Murder on the Orient Express is a fun thriller, yes, but it also lives in a moral gray area, fairly unique in a genre known for its black-and-white sense of justice. The story’s themes of grief and revenge present a conundrum that even Christie’s celebrated Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, can’t adequately judge.
Kenneth Branagh’s new big-screen adaptation of Christie’s novel is a diverting, gorgeous-looking film that struggles a little at showing the humbling effect that dilemma has on the great detective. However, it does a good job of portraying the pain at the center of this story, and how it metastasizes in its characters.
(note: minor spoilers follow)
Poirot (Branagh) is taking a short holiday in Istanbul when an urgent development in a case he’s working cuts the trip short. He gets the last seat aboard the Orient express, whose passengers include a shifty counterfeit art dealer (Johnny Depp) who turns up dead the first night. Stuck on a snowbound train with a murderer, Poirot must solve the crime before someone else turns up dead. But the crime, the victim, and the suspects are all more complicated than they first appear, and the experience disrupts Poirot’s understanding of right and wrong.
The ensemble of characters on the train are connected to a tragic crime, one with repercussions that have left each of them broken. Murder on the Orient Express reveals this brokenness, rather than judging the actions it inspires. The characters’ grief has turned inward and festered, resulting in a desire for revenge that, once carried out, doesn’t result in healing, only in more pain.
Where the movie falters is in showing the impact of this experience on Poirot. Much is made early on of the character’s obsession with balance and an ideal world. The result of the case is something that flies in the face of that. While Branagh’s Poirot is appropriately confused and outraged, you never get the sense that this experience will stick with him. By the end of the film, he seems to have shaken it off, ready to move on to the next adventure.
In Romans, Paul reminds us of the importance of leaving judgement to God, trying to find compassion for those who have hurt us, and through that, peace. In addition to being an entertaining mystery, Murder on the Orient Express reflects the way revenge, while providing temporary closure, doesn’t result in justice, or healing. The film doesn’t quite leave the impact it could (for that, check out the darker 2010 BBC adaptation), but it at least brings up the opportunity for discussion.