Hercule Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express: David Suchet as Hercule Poirot © 2010 MASTERPIECEMystery fans were treated to the opening of season X of Poirot on Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday with a new episode of Murder on the Orient Express, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels. Amazingly, this new production is only the second time it has been adapted for television and follows the famous and glitzy 1974 Hollywood movie directed by Sidney Lumet with an all-star cast including Albert Finney as Detective Hercule Poirot, Lauren Becall as the outrageously brash American Mrs. Hubbard and Ingrid Bergman in her Oscar winning role as Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson. Having seen this version some 36 years ago (yikes), I watched it again in preparation for this new David Suchet production. With the passing years, it is even more of an opulent showpiece of bravada by the then fading Hollywood studio system than I remembered, packed with so many stars and stunning costumes that my eye could not settle upon the seriousness of the story nor my head erase the earworm that the musical score created. It was glamorous. It was exciting. It was a dog and pony show that Agatha Christie’s novel never was. It still made me smile in appreciation of the great acting and direction from an era that we may look back upon in wonder.

The bones of the plot are basically the same. Hercule Poirot boards a luxury passenger train the Orient Express traveling from Istanbul to London and on the second night out the train becomes snowbound in Yugoslavia. During the night a ruthless American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Toby Jones) is murdered. Not only has he has been stabbed repeatedly; he appears to have been drugged. Poirot’s friend and director of the train line Xavier Bouc (Serge Hazanavicius) asks him to investigate the murder, and with the assistance of Dr. Constantine (Samuel West) Poirot begins to collect clues in the victims room and interview all of the passengers on the train. The evidence leads him to the famous kidnapping and murder five years earlier of a young girl Daisy Armstrong by Lanfranco Cassetti who was tried for the crime but not convicted. Poirot soon discovers that Samuel Ratchett is personally connected to the criminal and so are each of the passengers in a sad and tragic way. But who among them killed Samuel Ratchett and why?

From the first scene Poirot purists will know that this is not your typical ITV/PBS production of an Agatha Christie novel. While interrogating a British army officer in Palestine, Poirot catches him in a lie and the officer pulls his revolver and commits suicide right in front of him. This alone is a shocking image, but Poirot’s unemotional reaction to his death was so chilling that there is no doubt that screenwriter Stewart Harcourt (Dracula) and director Philip Martin (Wallender) have taken an entirely different approach in their interpretation of the cozy mystery fare that we have become so accustomed to on Masterpiece Mystery. Next Poirot is in Istanbul and he witnesses another pointless death of a woman accused of adultery being stoned by a mob of her family and neighbors. Is this a foreshadowing of what is yet to come for us aboard the Orient Express? Both of these scenes are added embellishments to Christie’s original novel and definitely not in the 1974 candy coated film. There are many other changes that I will leave for the observant viewer to deduce.

Even though many liberties have been taken with Christie’s plot and characters this new slant on Poirot really worked. Yes, the Jane Austen purist in me who is tweaked when others dally with my Jane is not offended by this hybridized Poirot. I just imagined him in a parallel universe aboard the antithesis Orient Express and it all worked for me. The highlight was the casting. David Suchet is more introspective and melancholy than I have ever seen him in this role before and it suits him as well as his waxed mustache and prim manners. (anyone who is that persnickety about their appearance andfood is sure to have a dark side) Eileen Atkins as the elegant Princess Dragomiroff, a white Russian who has seen the revolution and knows deeply what murder means, and Barbara Hershey as the pushy American widow Caroline Hubbard whose defense against suspicion is her brassy attitude were both the key performances. Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Ratchett’s man Edward Masterman and David Morrissey as English colonel John Arbuthnot sadly did not get much air time, but made a lasting impression.

The ending scene outside the snowbound train when Poirot must decide what justice must be done will linger with you and make you want to watch the movie again to catch all the bits that passed you by. This new direction for an Agatha Christie’s classic story seems to be in line with the trend to take what our culture values and remake it in our own unique vision. One wonders out loud how these changes will be viewed in twenty or thirty years, similar to my experience of watching the 1974 movie. Each is entertaining, but have we done justice to Miss Christie?

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

39 thoughts on “Hercule Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

  1. This interpretation of Murder on the Orient Express has polarized viewers, with some loving it and many disliking it. While I found the religious overtones gratuitous and a little self-indulgent, I thought the dark tone of this production set it apart from other film and tv adaptations.

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  2. I am a huge Jane Austen as well as Poirot fan, but I absolutely hated this version of “Murder on the Orient Express”. If we could insert David Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot in his heyday into the 1974 film, we would have a great masterpiece.

    Instead, the PBS/BBC version show a cranky and seemingly ill old Poirot who dwells in darkness and depression. All the characters seem tamped down and dull – not at all interesting or a bit amusing.

    I found the whole production awful. I’ve bought all the other Poirot DVDs but will not buy this one. I wonder if the remaining new episodes are as badly done as this one.

    What a huge disappointment!

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    • Spot on!!! I could not agree more. Overall it was a disaster.
      Where did Mr. Suchet’s Poirot go? I will not get this one either.
      I did see the “Third Girl” and Voila! The suchet-Poirot we love is back.

      I am totally dissappointed in the Orient Express……….

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    • I completely agree, Gwyn. Just a horrible, horrible adaptation and Poirot is completely out of character from Christie’s creation.

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      • ****SPOILERALERT****SPOILERALERT**

        I always considered Finney to be the best Poirot. Suchet’s portrayal has always been IMHO a bit fey for Poirot, who was meticulous but not effeminate. I generally dislike the rewritten Christie plots as they disingenuously coattail themselves, drawing unsuspecting viewers in to watch what they expect will be a faithful adaptation of the same-titled novel, but which generally have been second rate hatchet jobs by soap opera writer rejects. Most of the rewrites advance a homosexual agenda by inserting gay characters and, in the case of the simply awful Cards on the Table, perverting the entire plot to assert a murderer who killed to stay in the closet. I don’t object to stories about homosexuals, but I strenuously object to the ham-handed insertion of gay story lines into Agatha Christie’s work.

        That having been said, the rewritten Appointment With Death simply lacked the tension, the character development, the PLOT development (which was, where again?) of the original. The ridiculous white slavery ( a nun? Really?) and the second house maid cum celebrity and aristocrat sub plots were stupid enough, but the strength of the original story was in the character of Mrs. Boynton herself, which was scarcely touched in this horrible POS.

        Poirot was NOT a religious man, in fact he ultimately commits SUICIDE, yet he is given decidedly Catholic overtones in these rewritten plots. Absurd!

        In sum, if writers have mysteries in them they should write them. Using Agatha Christie’s titles and character names to advance one’s own political, religious agendas and careers is cheap, deceptive and ultimately disappointing.

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  3. I love to see good actors strutting their stuff, and this was no exception. However, I found David Souchet (esp. the moustache) somewhat creepy. I have not read Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels. Is Catholic guilt and self-righteousness what motivates him?

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      • Mary – the Catholic overtones and praying was not the motivation (that I deduced) for his actions, though he uses it to draw strength and direction I think. This part was puzzling and seemed oddly out of sync. Possibly the screenwriter was trying to tie in the act of justice by man or God. I will not say more for fear of spoilers.

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        • I wondered about the focus on Poirot’s faith, also, and thought it might be a strange anomaly. However, it is apparent again in Appointment with Death (an adaptation that has only the title in common with Christie’s novel, it seems). Personally, I don’t like it.

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          • I should clarify that I don’t like the focus on Poirot’s faith not because he’s Catholic or because I’m anti-religion but because it is not true to the tone of Christie’s novels or her characterization of Poirot.

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  4. Wow! What an episode! Poirot knocked over by the Soviet/Russian/Russian Orthodox/Chrisitan reality. His logic and quasi-Teutonic, ‘Western’ ways are completely thwarted by the ‘East’. As he removes the Rosary from his pocket, he cries in confusion. It was brilliant! It was a reflection of my personal experience first dealing with the Soviet Union in the depth of the snows of winter. BRAVO!

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  5. This postmodernization of Christie and relativization of values (all values are cultural, they would say…) is soft propaganda cloaked in a master actor’s work, using the work of a mystery genius as a vehicle. Needless to say, the young officer’s suicide and the stoning of the woman were “added” to create the desired false positioning. Christie would not have had Poirot adopt a cultural relativist view of the woman being stoned — he would have dashed off for the gendarmes, even if he knew it would be futile. And, yes — twenty years from now it will be visible how pervasive current pseudo-philosophy altered and undermined the premises of previous literary works.
    Excellent blog, by the way! Thanks for the opportunity to respond.

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  6. Pingback: Masterpiece Mystery PBS 2010 Season Preview « Austenprose

  7. I was enraged by the ending. End it after the more like Paul Scofield in “A Man For All Seasons” speech Hercule gives just before the end. This vigilanteism approval at the end was stunning. I didn’t buy his reaction to the stoning at all, either by the way. Felt derailed early on in this Express version. Apologists for violence, especially such a torturous violence as this. It gave me the creeps.

    I did not read Christie’s original. This ending was not it I am presuming? If I were she, I’d have a rollover in the grave for sure!

    Write your own damn mystery with vigilante ending, don’t tread so baldly on a classic.

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    • If you haven’t read the original, you CANNOT pass an opinion endings, ‘own’ endings, and the like. This was a different take – and brings to the fore undeveloped themes FROM THE BOOK. PLEASE, read the book.

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  8. I agree with K. Carroll; Poirot would not have simply accepted the stoning of the woman in the streets as some sort of cultural difference that should be let alone. He gets worked up to a smoldering outrage at the actions of those involved in Ratchett’s death as putting themselves above the law (when the law had failed abysmally and justice corrupted) yet not only makes no attempt to assist a fellow human pursued to her death before his eyes but berates those who would equate the two incidents. Suchet’s Poirot did seem very weary, tired of dealing with death and deception. Time for the old gent to retire, don’t you think?

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  9. Why would one want to watch a remake of Sidney Lumet’s brilliant interpretation of “Murder On The Orient Express?” That feat is really quite impossible to duplicate. I also had recently watched the Lumet adaptation and found it as delightful as I remembered. I was tickled that a new version was going to air soon, and I looked forward to its broadcast. I was not disappointed. How refreshing to see an innovative take on this classic. From the suicide on, I knew that this was going to be very different and intriguing. Yes, it was very dark. Yes, it was very Catholic. It was pessimistic, cynical and moralistic. It was brilliant. I appreciated Miller’s Poirot as the consummate observer. Instead of a delightful bit of fluff, a challenging morality play was presented. I was engaged throughout and absolutely devastated at the end. I recommend it highly.

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  10. I found this adaptation to be very disappointing. Mind you, the 1974 version was a bit over-the-top at times in regard to acting and production design. But it never sunk to this . . . I do not even know what to call it. I really did not like it . . . and I include David Suchet’s performance.

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  11. Pingback: Hercule Poirot: Third Girl on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review « Austenprose

  12. From the signatures above I suspect that I am the only male that has found his way here. If I may throw in my two cents, I cannot top the views expressed regarding this interpretation by “Gwyn”, “KCarrol” and “unsinkmolly” above. There is no need to “interpret” or “improve” on a classic. Particularly if you are “improving” or “updating” Christie’s most iconic work. This production was a huge disappointment, particularly as David Suchet has proven himself to be the quintessential Hercule Poirot. I agree that Suchet in the 1974 film would have been a great improvement over Albert Finny, which was why I was expecting great things- what a let down. I think that a third rate, no-talent writer who is incapable of achieving the success of Ms. Christie on his own, has found a way to make a living by bowdlerizing a work that he would be incapable of writing on his own.

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  13. “If we could insert David Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot in his heyday into the 1974 film, we would have a great masterpiece.”

    I totally agree!

    I watched this new version mainly because David Suchet is the consummate Hercule Poirot and expected it to be even better than the Lumet movie, which I’ve watched repeatedly over the years.

    I missed all the flamboyant Lumet movie characters, but felt the emphasis on Hercule Poirot’s moral dilemma in dealing with Ratchett’s murder and resultant “justice” was a good way to redo the story with the emphasis on Poirot, instead of cloning Lumet’s movie.

    Poirot’s moral dilemma is reminiscent of Atticus Finch’s reluctance not to prosecute Boo Radley for the same kind of “eye for an eye” justice for a killer of innocents in the movie” To Kill a Mockingbird”.

    I plan to read the book soon and sort out exactly what Agatha Christie’s emphasis was.

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  14. This “Murder on the Orient Express” is the most brilliant piece on television this year. The writer took this Christie story and made it compelling and thought provoking. And kudos to the director for bringing the best out of this cast. The most amazing thing about this program, forcing the viewer to take stock of their own views on morality, a question I am sure that makes many uncomfortable in this age of division popular with the more conservative elements in our society. “Let he (or she) who is without sin…”

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  15. Pingback: Hercule Poirot: Appointment with Death on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review « Austenprose

  16. I found this Poirot outing deeply disappointing, but not for the (totally respectable) reasons that others here have cited. My objection isn’t that they departed from the Christie novel; it is that they betrayed the audience of the television program.

    When it comes to Christie I feel that as long as you get the plot and murderer right (and they haven’t always) you have broad latitude. The original years of the Suchet series took a number of liberties with the material – resetting dates, expanding minor recurring characters, developing subplots and even inventing bits of side business – that were critical in making the character so delightful.

    The late Clive Exton was the brilliant visionary behind this interpretation of Dame Agatha’s sleuth, adding generous doses of gentle humor, ensemble interaction, and art deco style absent from the novels and short stories. In recent years the TV movies have drifted away from this aesthetic, shedding both associates and humor, but this new production of Orient Express reaches new depths. A solitary, angry, compassionless Poirot spends much of the slow, grinding 90 minutes (feels like hours) trading pretentious moral lectures with barely distinguishable supporting characters.

    The last few years of the series have seen writers increasingly force religious subplots and messages of the kind characteristic of Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene but completely alien to either the Christie novels or the original Exton TV series. (One wonders if the writers, stymied by TV execs from making adaptations of those fine novelists have chosen simply to subvert the Christie franchise.) The insertions have generally been clunky additions that simply did not fit with the Christie stories, striking jarringly discordant notes. At least in Orient Express they have been made to work smoothly, but the price is finally jettisoning the old Poirot – both Christie’s and Exton’s – altogether in favor of a tortured, ambivalent, fatalistic Greene anti-hero. The old Poirot was a “calculating machine” (in Christies famous quote), warmed up by the twinkling charm of Suchet’s eternal refugee and Exton’s broadminded between-the-wars tolerance and sophistication – the epitome of secular cosmopolitan rationalism. The new Poirot is a superstitious old Italian lady, snarling to strangers about God’s wrath, grimly praying on his knees, and compulsively fiddling with rosary beads. I half expected him to put the evil eye on someone.

    For the loyal fans around the world the producers have made millions from, it was a kind of bait and switch – promise them the Exton/Suchet Poirot they had come to love and then give them this ultramontane stock figure instead. Talk about caveat emptor.

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  17. David Suchet’s performance in “Murder on The Orient Express” transcends the traditional interpretations of Poirot (even his own) and delivers viewers a multi-layered character which (although not in-line with Christie’s original writing) brings the detective to a more honest and “realistic” place. Also, viewers should remember that Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon were not in most of the original stories, but their TV adaptations in the 90s. No one complains about the series’ fidelity of these shows to the text anymore (they did though…vociferously). Now, in 2010, these characters that viewers had accepted and grown used to have long since gone and Suchet’s Poirot is alone with only his belief system and his moral code. He is a lonely old man who leans on his religion (which has always been present in the series…really. Go back and look at “Triangle at Rhodes” and “The Chocolate Box.” See his moral reaction at the end of “Problem at Sea.” It makes sense and it makes him real.

    It also makes sense to take this introspective approach to this most famous of Christie’s works as a whole. The story has already been done as a “glittering star-studded souffle” of a movie, and quite successfully. And yes, I like it very much. Why would you want to repeat that? Why wouldn’t you try for something more serious? It would be darker. There wouldn’t be comic sidekicks and silly stereotypes.

    Suchet deserves a great deal of recognition for his work here. A lot more than he’s getting. He’s challenged his own character and found hidden darker areas for exploration. I, for one, hope they notice this when award time comes around.

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    • I’ve read the post and these comments with huge interest, and this comment comes closest to my own view. I thought Suchet’s performance here was extraordinarily brilliant – he brought a much greater realism and depth to Poirot. The only small detail I disliked was the piece of business with the rosary right at the end – I thought that was an unnecessary underlining of his inner conflict.
      For me, Suchet will always be the definitive Poirot, and this version of Orient Express was interesting and completely compelling, I absolutely loved it.

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  18. I admire this production’s attempt to make Poirot’s character more deep and the revelation of this particular case darker and more complex. But in the end, I think they had failed. I have no problems with making changes from the original novel . . . as long as they work. The changes in this adaptation did not work. And I really hate to say this, but if I were to choose between Finney’s portrayal of Poirot in the 1974 adaptation and Suchet’s portrayal in this film, I would have to choose Finney’s performance. This was not Suchet’s best work. Not by a long shot. Not with all of the hammy acting from him and most of the cast by the film’s last 20 minutes.

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    • So, what changes didn’t work? I actually admire the character changes. Making Dr. Constantine complicit was quite clever and changes him from a sounding board for Poirot into a integral part of the plot. And losing Hardman while also making Foscarelli more complex made sense from a narrative standpoint. The shift of group leadership from Mrs. Hubbard/Linda Arden to Princess Dragamiroff did not seem odd. Perhaps there was some overacting…I was not too fond of the Greta Ohlsson this time..but that seems minor. Most importantly, the character arch for Poirot makes sense, even if Christie didn’t track it through her novels. Any one who knows Poirot, knows where all this is going to end. And the conflict between Justice and Morality, between Religion and Humanism needs to be there for us to believe what’s coming up.

      Granted I’ve only seen the American presentation of MOTOE (which is edited), but I believe that the additional scenes won’t change the subtext behind “this” Poirot’s motivation. And it does seem like some motivation needed to be provided which wasn’t originally there. Christie was famous for plotting than for character. I think Christie’s intention as to shock in “Curtain.” To provide a final twist. So, at the end of the novel MOTOE, he merely states: “…I have the pleasure to retire from the case.” There is no internal debate. But, it comes much earlier in her oeuvre. However, the series has arranges things differently. And in the context for the series, there really needs to be more. He’s slowly being stripped of all the elegance and “flippery” of his position. His friends and foils are gone…(although Ariadne Oliver is still around). He’s becoming more internal and less external. As he moves toward the end, all he has left are his religion and his sense of justice, both of which are increasingly being challenged. I think it makes sense and the productions seem to put some thought behind these character decisions.

      As for Finney vs. Suchet…well, to me they’re in two different movies and both succeed on their own level…but Suchet, with the benefit of playing the character for over 20 years can delve deeper.

      I, like so many others, miss the camaraderie and light-hearted atmosphere of the early years. And so does Poirot…which I think is the point.

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  19. I am completely baffled by the sudden transformation in Poirot’s character – it is not Poirot as we all know him to be, because there is no precedence. I was not ready, rather not expecting this transformation. When did this change in character occur? And, what was the writer thinking or for that matter, the director?

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    • His emotions throughout the film are in reaction to what happened at the beginning. The suicide and the stoning. He is dealing with vigilante justice, and struggling to come to terms with it. Brilliantly done. He is older, and more pensive, and possibly a little fed up with people taking the law into their own hands and I think that comes across really well.

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  20. It was those camera angles shot though the edge of the mirror that got me, I personally allow myself ONE of these odd shots in my Wedding videos and that is it finished, why should we have to watch this footage shot mainly to try and earn someone a BAFTA.

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  21. Just seen this in the UK for the first time. Was looking forward to a seasonal dose of Poirot … boy, was I disappointed! Bewildered by the gratuitous violence of the opening scenes and Poirot’s non-emotive, dismissive reaction. Also disliked the superfluous religious aspects and associated moral dilemmas introduced into the character. For what reason?

    The blurry camera gimmicks also served to annoy and not enhance the plot.

    Leave Poirot alone as Christie wrote him please ITV. I expected to spend an evening with a charming, comfortable (and enjoyably predictable) old friend … sadly not the case.

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  22. Poirot was a catholic, as any one who has read the Poirot canon knows. So to the person [getaclue] who said Poirot is not religious and then castigated the screenwriters, best get your facts straight.

    Christie (remember her?) decided Poirot was to be a Roman Catholic, and gave him a strong sense of Catholic morality in the later works.

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