Murder On The Orient Express – The most timeless of whodunits

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It’s unsettling.  It’s entertaining.  It’s surprising.  And, if you like a murder mystery with heart and passion and soul, I think it’s worth a look

As a huge admirer of Agatha Christie and long-time collaborator with producer Ridley Scott, screenwriter Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner: 2049) was thrilled when he was asked to bring Murder On The Orient Express to the screen.

Producer Scott, a Christie fan himself, and an admirer of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, had leapt at the chance to re-explore the book, seeing it a wonderful opportunity to present the author’s work to a modern-day audience. Green agrees.

Murder_on_the_Orient_Express_First_Edition_Cover_1934Published in 1934, Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder on the Orient Express is considered one of the most ingenious stories ever devised.  More than 80 years after its publishing, Christie’s novel remains beloved by new generations of readers. Kenneth Branagh’s stunning retelling of the beloved mystery with its acclaimed ensemble and breathtaking visuals invites audiences to take the most suspenseful train ride of their lives.

In the most timeless of whodunits, Murder On The Orient Express follows renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) as he attempts to solve what would become one of the most infamous crimes in history.

After a shocking murder of a wealthy businessman on the lavish European train barreling its way west in the dead of winter, private detective Poirot must use every tool of his trade to uncover which of the train’s eclectic passengers is the killer, before he or she strikes again.

Agatha Christie’s classic mystery, with its richly drawn characters confined to a luxurious passenger train, taut scenes and crisp dialogue, has fixated audiences since the novel’s debut in 1934. The Times of London wrote upon its publishing, “The little grey cells solve once more the seemingly insoluble. Mrs. Christie makes an improbable tale very real, and keeps her readers enthralled and guessing to the end.”

  • Her prolific writing career spanned five decades, with 66 crime novels, 6 non-crime novels and 150 short stories
  • She wrote over 20 plays, of which the most famous, ‘The Mousetrap’, is the longest running play in the world, having debuted in 1952
  • With more than 2 billion books published, she is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare
  • Easily translatable, her books have been published in over 100 languages, making her the most translated writer of all time.
  • In 1971 Christie achieved one of Britain’s highest honors when she was made a Dame of the British Empire. Her last public appearance was at the opening night of the 1974 film version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot.  Her verdict? A good adaptation with the minor point that Poirot’s moustaches weren’t luxurious enough.  Read more

Readers have been captivated with the mystery, the crime, the story, and the character of Hercule Poirot for generations. The allure of the Orient Express was magnified by Christie’s work, and travelers continue to flock to discover the illustrious compartments and service to this day. Room 411 in the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, where Christie allegedly wrote the novel, also remains a popular destination site. There are societies and clubs the world over dedicated to rediscovering Christie’s mysteries, particularly those featuring Hercule Poirot.

Why the endless fascination?

agatha-christiejpg“Agatha Christie is expert at bringing depth (with economy) to the observation of characters, making them distinct and colorful, but also believable.  I think she enjoys the literary dazzle of that, but in the Orient Express, you also have glamour. You have snow. You have elegance and the golden age of romance in travel.  And, of course, you have a murder,” says Kenneth Branagh.  This film introduces another generation of moviegoers to an enthralling new interpretation of one of the most beloved mysteries of all time.  A “who’s who” of celebrated actors and an acclaimed production team up for the journey.

With everything Agatha Christie, it all starts with the story. But to make a film, of course, you then need to get the rights to that story – and for producers Mark Gordon and Simon Kinberg, that proved to be a near-five-year-long journey.  Initially, both men had enquired about the rights separately but soon decided that teaming up would be the best approach.

“They’re incredible stories with characters that you want to see more and more of,” says Green.  “And if you’re lucky enough to catch an Agatha Christie book or play at the right age, it’s going to stay with you and remain charming in your memory.”

1106387-michaelcopyMichael Green is a television and film writer and producer who has received numerous accolades for his work, including an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series in 2007 for ‘Heroes’. His recent work includes the screenplays for Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant and  Logan’.

In television, Green currently serves as executive producer and co-showrunner of Starz’s ‘American Gods’, adapted from Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel by Green and Bryan Fuller. Green also created and executive-produced NBC’s ‘Kings’ and ABC’s ‘The River’.  He has additionally written and produced for numerous shows including ‘Heroes’, ‘Everwood’, ‘Smallville’, ‘Jack & Bobby’ and ‘Sex and the City’.

But even as a Christie fan, one story stands out for Green: “I’m very fortunate that my favorite Agatha Christie is, hands down, Murder on the Orient Express.  It not only features Poirot, my favorite character of hers, but it’s a story that has a surprising ending, along with the fascinating people you meet along the way.  The setting is grand and everything about it makes it stand apart in my memory as the special one.”

Green met with the Christie estate to discuss the project: “We all had the same goal: we wanted to bring it into the modern world without changing what’s essential to it, without altering its soul, so that a contemporary audience can experience it, believe it and be thrilled by it.”

For Green, his interpretation of the classic murder mystery came together when Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Cinderella) came on board:  “Probably the most exciting day in the development process was finding out that Ken was interested in directing and starring in it,” says Green.  “I have immense respect and appreciation for him, both as an actor and a director.  Suddenly, this hypothetical script I had written became a film – one I could now imagine through Ken’s lens and the caliber of the people he would attract to the project.”

Great-grandson of Agatha Christie and Chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd, James Prichard, agrees with Green: “I have watched Ken’s films since I was very young – I watched his Henry V as part of my university degree, and to have him on this film, an incredibly talented director and one of the best actors of his generation, to have someone of that quality want to play Poirot gives me an enormous sense of pride.”

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Branagh a perfect fit

Known for his love of classics, Kenneth Branagh was a perfect fit from the start. “Fox knew that I loved thrillers, and so they came to me with this most classic of thriller mysteries,” recalls the actor/director.  “I think maybe they even knew I liked trains – I certainly liked this title, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’.  It’s always had a special sort of ring to it and it takes you to the golden age of travel. It’s also a character piece set in a very confined space, under tremendous tension. There are very interesting disparate characters interacting about the most profound and dangerous of subjects and themes. I read the script by Michael Green, and I was really taken by it.”

With no shortage of interpretations of Christie’s work, Branagh’s desire to revisit these characters started with the depth and compassion Green mined, as well as the exploration of the darker idea of the motivation for revenge.

“Michael Green clearly loved the material, and he loved the characters.  He wasn’t trying to get easy laughs, and he wasn’t poking fun at the characters – particularly Hercule Poirot,” said Branagh.  “There was a compassion in the screenplay, and one of the things that surprised and thrilled me about the film is that it’s much more an emotional experience than people might imagine. This goes deeper because, it explores grief, and loss, and revenge, with sophistication and soul.”

Then there is the setting. For modern audiences, travel has become a hassle, a means to an end destination. The setting of Orient Express harkens back to the care and precision given to travel, and the true luxury of the experience. Green’s script captured the allure of the time and the meticulous details of the famous train.

branagh

Kenneth Branagh is an acclaimed actor and director whose work across film, television and theatre is underscored by quality, truth and passion. He has been nominated for five Academy Awards®, making him one of the first actors to receive five nominations in five separate categories (Actor, Supporting Actor, Director, Screenplay, and Short Film).Currently, Branagh is in pre-production on Disney’s adaptation of the best-selling children’s series, Artemis Fowl, which follows a young Irish criminal mastermind on a mission to rescue his father.

“Michael relishes in the golden age of travel and the attention to detail in the Orient Express, the train, as well as other people’s appreciation of it,” says Branagh. “We both experienced that sort of childlike sense of excitement about being able to cross Europe in this wheeled palace, with its confined spaces that also make you think certain things could go bump in the night.  So, his feeling for the piece, both for the emotional depths and colors in it, the sense of fun and excitement, where it exists, and the respect for the material, along with certainly the desire to entertain – all of that came winging off the page.  His screenplay felt very rich to me.”

Not only was Branagh excited at the prospect of working with Green’s script, he was also very keen to collaborate with the Agatha Christie Estate:  “Mathew Prichard [Christie’s grandson] and James Prichard [Christie’s great-grandson] were two of the first people I met when I came on board for the project, and this very particular connection was very important to me. Mathew grew up with Agatha Christie, and James is not only a family member, but a very smart, creative influence in the way that estate is run, and a very good collaborator.  We all feel that Agatha Christie work is in a very potent moment of evolution.  She has already made this massive contribution to the world’s entertainment yet she is being rediscovered as someone who has touched on areas of human experience that have relevance for today.  She continues to entertain, and make us think in a different way.”

On the relevance of the story, James Prichard explains:  “To me, Murder on the Orient Express is one of the cleverest stories that Agatha Christie wrote. There is an astonishing exploration of justice, and justice was very important to my great-grandmother, and there are elements to this story that I think are unique, and that go to the core of what makes this story so powerful.  The back-story is incredibly moving and challenging, and the way Poirot deals with the whole episode is extraordinary.”

Mathew Prichard, adds: “It’s a mixture of all sorts of things.  The glamour, the originality of the story and the outrageousness of the solution.  It was a brilliantly written book in the 1930’s and I think it’s hard to remember nowadays, how original it must have seemed then.  My grandmother traveled in that direction, and she stopped off in Istanbul on her way to Syria and Iraq, so for Christie lovers, it has a sense of genuine authenticity of where she used to go herself.”

For Green, it was the first time in his career where he would develop a script with someone who is both the director and the lead actor.  “Together, we would be thinking not only of how it would be shot, but how he would want to play individual moments.  We could look at a line and discuss the tone and the camera angles, but also, I could hear him read it directly to me and I would be able to shape the lines instantly for him.  It was a very interesting and efficient process and takes out a lot of the guesswork when the director is the one who knows precisely how the lead actor is going to be speaking the words.”

Branagh explains why it was a natural fit for him to direct and play Poirot:  “It felt that there was a way in which those two things were very congruent with one person doing the same job.  Because, crucially, I think, Hercule Poirot is a director.  He directs the characters, and like a director, Poirot intuitively tries to listen to the way in which he can be specific and bespoke about how to create the mood that’s required for each interrogation.”

As a director, the concentration that Branagh would have on all of these amazing actors, and the detail of performance was exactly what Poirot had to have, as he looked for the tell-tale signs of the culprit, which, as Christie points out, is often “Poirot observing just the flicker in an eye.”

“Poirot’s a master of observing body language,” said Branagh. “It’s not someone with an object. It’s what somebody does with an object.  It’s the way they eat, or what they leave, or what they don’t say, or what constitutes humor.  And from his own alleged separate perspective, he often uses this notion that because he’s a Belgian, he’s separate, and he plays up to a sense that other people have of him as being different, some might say, eccentric, because when they’re saying that, they’re underestimating him.”

Oscar-nominated actor Johnny Depp was intrigued by how the story felt relevant and fresh. “It’s got everything you might expect from Agatha Christie,” said Depp.  “Death, murder, interesting characters, an unusual, often glamorous situation –  all of those elements, inside a wonderful location and journey, are all there.  But I was really impressed to return to it and see how it hadn’t dated, and, in fact, it had reinvented itself, I think, which is a sign of very good storytelling.”

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Oscar-nominated actor Willem Dafoe was drawn to the script for its character-driven narrative:  “For this story, it’s the tone that’s so important, and the role of Poirot is interesting and beautifully written, as are the balance of the characters.  It has a nice edge and it’s fun, but it also has a moral dilemma at its center.”

“All of the major plot points are there,” says Leslie Odom, Jr., “but it’s really told for a modern audience who has seen everything and heard everything.  How do you excite these kids? How do you make them lean forward in their seats when they’ve seen so much?  I think Ken and Michael have done a really great job with that aspect of the script.”

The style, grace and romance of Green’s script and the writer’s ability to stay faithful to the essence of the story, while updating it for a modern audience, enticed the acclaimed cast.  Explains Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: “It has the same DNA as the novel, but it’s more dynamic.” Lucy Boynton concurs: “It was a perfect balance between a modern version of it, whilst also staying true to all that is sacred in Agatha Christie’s story. That was a really exciting element, to see the way that it had been developed.”

When Josh Gad first read the script, he immediately knew he wanted to be involved in the project.  He explains: “I got about twenty pages into the script and called my agent and I said, ‘I don’t care if I have to play an usher who’s taking tickets, I need to be a part of this film, it’s extraordinary.’  To me, something this smart, something this epic, something that almost harks back to the golden age of Hollywood cinema, as an actor but also as a cinephile, was really exciting.”

The level of detail was particularly important as the film was shot on 65mm, a format which heightens every element of the filmmaking process.

“In our digital age, it’s increasingly rare for films to be shot on celluloid, and mostly when they are, it’s 35mm,” said Branagh.  “We are shooting on 65mm.  So, in crude terms, it’s twice the size of the 35mm negative.  It allows for a level of definition in the color and the range of tones and contrasts in the movie that, if you like film, some would argue, echoes more the experience of the human eye when viewing things.  It essentially means, in layman’s terms, that it looks sharper, richer, more colorful, and it feels like you’re inside it.  That’s what 65mm does for me, and I wanted to take the audience onto the train.  That’s why we chose that format.”

Writer Michael Green was delighted that the scale of the film could be amplified: “In the original novel we have a snowbound train just in and of itself.  For the script, we wanted to enhance the ideas of the book, whilst still honoring them – not necessarily change them, but just inhabit them a little more deeply.  So, in the novel, the train becomes snowbound.  In this film, it becomes a little more thrilling, in that the passengers become snowbound in a fairly precarious place – a creaky, viaduct bridge, which is the last place you’d want to be stuck for any length of time, because at any given moment you’re hearing the creaks and groans of ancient wood, plus it completely removes the possibility of escape.”

Adds Branagh:  “It’s exciting that Agatha Christie chooses this confined space in which to trap her characters.  But we wanted to expand the range of that train to see that if the train was, via a violent avalanche, trapped on top of a viaduct, which, in itself, was potentially precarious, and where there was great jeopardy inside a stretch of mountain too high for anybody to easily get down by walking.  That did a couple of things.  It expanded the idea of a different kind of trap, in that you’re not only in a trap of the train carriages and then the little rooms themselves, but, also, on this mountainside with a vast amount of precipitous danger around you.  It allowed us to get the characters and the camera outside, and to see a sense of the scale of this thing where this deep, dark, intense, tiny tragedy was happening.  So, Jim Clay responded brilliantly to the idea of making where the train was trapped, then the landscape around it, as exciting as what was going on inside the train.”

“Agatha Christie knows how to tell a story with complete, compelling, page-turning intensity, concludes Branagh. “If you like a real mystery, it’s a gripping yarn.  It happens in this case to be peopled by a lot of terrific actors who, I think, intensify that mystery.  It’s unsettling.  It’s entertaining.  It’s surprising.  And, if you like a murder mystery with heart and passion and soul, I think it’s worth a look.”