“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2001) Review
There have been more adaptations of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel, “And Then There Were None” than any of her other novels. That is quite an achievement. The only other novel that comes close to producing this number of adaptations is her 1934 novel, ‘Murder on the Orient Express”.
Christie’s 1934 novel managed to produce four adaptations, as far as I know – two movie releases and two television movies. The least famous of this quartet of adaptations was the television movie that aired on CBS in 2001. This version is famous or infamous for one thing – it is the only one that is not a period drama and set in the present day. “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” made a few other changes to Christie’s narrative. The television movie’s beginning established a complicated romance between Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot and a sexy younger woman named Vera Rossakoff. The number of suspects was reduced from twelve to nine. And the Orient Express was stalled by a mudslide due to heavy rain and not a snowbank caused from an avalanche. Due to the film’s setting, some of the characters’ backgrounds and professions had been changed to reflect the late 20th century and early 21st century setting.
“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” begins in Istanbul, Turkey; where private detective Hercule Poirot had just solved the murder of a dancer at a local nightclub. After a brief quarrel with his lady love, Vera Rossakoff, Poirot sets out to fly back to London. But an encounter with his old friend Wolfgang Bouc, an executive with the the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, leads Poirot to return to London via the famed Orient Express train. During the eastbound train journey, an American millionaire named Samuel Ratchett tries to hire Poirot to protect him from a potential assassin who has sent him threatening letters. However, Poirot refuses the job due to his dislike of Ratchett. During the second night of the journey, heavy rain causes a landslide, blocking the train to continue its journey. And Rachett is found stabbed to death inside his compartment, the following morning. Bouc recruits Poirot to solve Rachett’s murder.
I have a confession to make. I had disliked “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” when I first saw it on television all those years ago. My main reason for disliking the television movie was the fact that it had a modern setting, instead of one set in the 1930s. It was not a period movie. And for a story like Christie’s 1934 novel, I resented it. However, I do believe the film’s modern setting provided one major flaw for its narrative. Since the late 20th century, passengers for the Simplon Orient Express have to book passage on the train long before the date of its departure – six months to a year, more or less. The idea of Poirot managing to get a compartment aboard the Orient Express at such short notice in 2001 strikes me as pretty implausible. And when one adds to the fact that the train travels to and from Istanbul at least once a year, makes this narrative in a modern setting even more implausible. Another problem I had with “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was it made the same mistake as the 2010 adaptation from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. They used the wrong rail cars. The 2010 television movie used the blue and cream Pullman cars for the journey from Istanbul to Calais. The 2001 movie used the brown and cream Pullman cars, usually reserved for the Orient Express from London to Folkstone, as the main train, as shown below:
Do I have any other problems with “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”? Well . . . yes, I have one further problem. But I will address it later. Aside from these problems, did I enjoyed this recent re-watch of the television movie? Yes, I did. More than I thought I would. Which is ironic, considering that I disliked the movie so much when I first saw all those years ago. I finally realized that I had automatically resented the film for not being a period drama. And over the years, I had erroneously believed that the movie was set aboard a modern train and not on a restored one from the past. It took my recent viewing of the television movie for me to realize I had been wrong. However, I did noticed that the sleeping compartments did look surprisingly bigger than usual. Despite some modern updating in the film’s visual look, the characters’ background and dialogue; “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” did a first-rate job of adapting Christie’s novel.
What many might find surprising is that screenwriter Stephen Harrigan and director Carl Schenkel did not inflict any drastic changes to Christie’s plot, unlike some recent Christie adaptations from the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” series and one or two miniseries produced by Sarah Phelps. Harrigan and Schenkel did not drastically change the movie’s narrative, aside from reducing the number of suspects and having the train delayed by a mud slide, instead of a snow drift. Yes, the backgrounds and professions of the characters were changed due to the modern setting. And characters also change nationalities – like Bob Arbuthnot, an American tech CEO (British Army colonel in Christie’s novel); Senora Alvarado, a widow of a South American dictator (a Russian princess in the novel); Phililp and Helena von Strauss, a German or Austrian couple traveling the world (the husband was a Hungarian diplomat in the novel); and even Wolfgang Bouc, the Franco-German Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits executive (who was solely French in the novel). This version of “Murder on the Orient Express” was not the first or last time when some of the characters’ backgrounds and nationalities were changed. All four adaptations (including the highly regarded 1974 version) were guilty of this. But despite these changes, Harrigan and Schenkel stuck to Christie’s narrative. And thanks to Harrigan’s direction, this version proved to be a lot better than I had originally surmised.
I certainly had no problems with most of the film’s performances. “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” provided solid performances from Amira Casar, Kai Wiesinger, Dylan Smith, Nicolas Chagrin, Adam James, Tasha de Vasconcelos, and Fritz Wepper, who managed to create an effective screen team with star Alfred Molina as the investigative pair of Poirot and Monsieur (or Herr) Bouc. I thought David Hunt did an excellent job of conveying the aggressive, overprotective and slightly arrogant traits of American CEO, Bob Arbuthnot. I enjoyed Leslie Caron’s colorful, yet autocratic portrayal of Senora Alvarado, the widow of a South American dictator. Meredith Baxter was equally colorful as an American character actress, traveling around Europe as a tourist. Her portrayal of Mrs. Hubbard reminded me of a younger version of a character she had portrayed in the 1980 miniseries, “BEULAH LAND” – but without the Southern accent. And I was really impressed by Natasha Wightman’s performance as British tutor Mary Debenham. What really impressed me about Wightman’s performance is that her portrayal of Miss Debenham was the closest to the literary character than any of the other versions. There was one performance that fell flat with me and it came from Peter Strauss, who portrayed the victim, Samuel Rachett. If I must be brutally honest, I found it rather hammy. Strauss, whom has always struck me as a first-rate actor in other productions, seemed to be screaming in nearly every scene. However, there is one scene in which I found his performance impressive. The scene involved Rachett’s attempt to hire Poirot as his bodyguard and with a performance that permeated with subtlety and menace, Strauss reminded audiences of the excellent actor that he had always been through most of his career.
I have never come across any real criticism of Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Well . . . I did come across one article that discussed Molina’s performance from Vulture magazine. But the critic seemed more focused on the movie’s modern setting and Poirot’s relationship with Vera Rossakoff, than Molina’s performance. Personally, I thought the British actor did a superb job in portraying the detective. He managed to capture all of Poirot’s intelligence, mild eccentricities, slight pomposity and talent for emotional manipulation. One thing I can say about Molina’s portrayal is that his performance as Poirot was probably the most subtle I have seen on a movie or television screen. Whether someone would regard this as good or bad, is in the eye of the beholder. But I feel that this subtle performance suited Molina’s style. Some have commented that Molina’s Poirot was more “youthful” than other portrayals. Hmmmm . . . how odd. Molina was in his late 40s when he shot the television movie (perhaps 47 or 48 years old). Yet, Albert Finney was a decade younger when he portrayed Poirot in the 1974 film and his Poirot came off as a middle-aged man. David Suchet was five or six years younger when he began his twenty-four years stint portraying the detective for ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. And during those early years, his Poirot also seemed slightly middle-aged. Because of this, I find this observation of Molina’s Poirot as “youthful” rather questionable.
It is a pity that the “official” opinion of “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” is so negative. I used to share this opinion until I did a re-watch of the television film with a more open mind. Like others, I had been dismissive of the 2001 version, due to its modern setting. I now realize I had been rather narrow-minded and prejudiced. Despite its flaws – and it had a few – “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” proved to be a lot better than I had originally surmised, thanks to director Carl Schenkel, Stephen Harrigan’s teleplay and an excellent cast led by the superb Alfred Molina. I hope that one day, other Christie fans would dismiss their prejudices against the movie’s setting and appreciate it for the entertaining production it truly is.