Tuesday, November 7, 2017

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Timeless?: Murder on the Orient Express, 2001

With the new Murder on the Orient Express in theaters this Friday, we're taking a look at every adaptation of Agatha Christie's infamous novel. Each version has its own unique spin on the story. Yesterday, we talked about the old school homage approach Sidney Lumet took with the original cinematic version; today, Poirot gets a 21st-century update...with mixed results.

Murder on the Orient Express (2001)
dir: Carl Schenkel
The Detective
Alfred Molina as Hercule Poirot

The Victim
Peter Strauss as Samuel Ratchett

The Suspects
Meredith Baxter as Caroline Hubbard
Leslie Caron as SeƱora Alvarado
Amira Casar as Helena von Strauss
Nicolas Chagrin as Pierre Michel
David Hunt as Bob Arbuthnot
Adam James as William MacQueen
Dylan Smith as Tony Foscarelli
Kai Wiesinger as Philip von Strauss
Natasha Wightman as Mary Debenham

Tasha de Vasconcelos as Vera Rossakoff
Fritz Wepper as Wolfgang Bouc

When Season 8 of Agatha Christie's Poirot premiered in the fall of 2001, the newspaper began its favorable review with this line: "David Suchet is the definitive Poirot...as Alfred Molina proved earlier this year." True, though mean and a little unfair to Molina.

He's a perfectly fine Poirot, and excels at portraying the Belgian's condescending nature and deadpan gallows humor. He is not the problem. Rather, it's the whole milieu that doesn't work, for this Christie adaptation doesn't just update her story to the 21st century - it cringingly, self-consciously shouts said updates from the mountaintops, instantly dating itself. I mean, some of these lines:
"Perot? Like the American presidential candidate? Certainly not. The name is Poirot."
"Elton John is flying in from London yust to see me!"
"It appears to be a stylus. It's made for entering data into handheld computers."
But there are other twists and turns within the narrative that only stress why this particular Christie story does not work in the Internet Age, making the solution more preposterous than shocking. If you've never read the book or seen any of the movies, read no further, because things are about to get spoiled....

The victim is a former gangster who kidnapped and murdered a child years ago, which subsequently led to the deaths of the girl's parents and a maid falsely accused of the crime. Poirot has to find who on the train is connected to the family. When you're snowbound in the middle of nowhere in the 1930s, yeah, who knows what lies anyone is telling about themselves? But in 2001, Poirot actually uses a laptop to look up old articles and videos of the crime, as well as those connected to it. What once had to be deduced can now be quickly Googled.

But even that is botched in a frantic attempt to maintain the mystery. Let's just look at Mrs. Hubbard. The reveal that she's a retired stage actress and the maternal grandmother of the dead child is a shocker. But in 2001, she's immediately introduced as a semi-known TV actress - that alone would guarantee her name and photograph in all the coverage of the kidnapping and murder, yet when Poirot's researching the case, no mention of her ever comes up. Small wonder, then, that her character's connection to the crime is quickly explained and brushed off in this adaptation, while in others she was the heart and soul of the denouement. Another passenger is found to be a "surprise" link because...she appears front and center in a home video of the dead family readily available online. It just. Doesn't. Work.

Two things about this adaptation are interesting, though. One is the inclusion of Vera Rossakoff, a character from two of Christie's short stories and a novel, who served as a foil and romantic interest for Poirot - and here proposes marriage to him! The other is the last line, where Poirot hints that this TV Movie could be a pilot for The Adventures of Hercule Poirot and Vera Rossakoff : "Perhaps, in due course, our further adventures will present themselves, for your attention." I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued by what that would have looked like.

Tomorrow, the definitive Poirot, David Suchet, gives us his take...with some surprising guest turns!

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