ON TRACK FOR MURDER
GET ON BOARD FOR CELEBRITIES, GORGEOUS COSTUMES AND A CLASSIC WHODUNNIT
Sir Kenneth Branagh and the Queen of Crime
Dame Agatha Christie “had always been allergic” to cinema adaptations of her books, her husband Max Mallowan was quoted as saying. “She didn’t like her characters to be portrayed on book covers either,” says James Prichard, her great-grandson.
Agatha, who wrote 66 detective novels between
1920 and 1976, translated into around 45 languages, is the most widely read novelist in history, with sales of more than two billion copies worldwide. There have been 23 film adaptations of her books in the UK alone, not to mention the multiple TV series. And now we have Murder on the Orient Express.
Directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh (who also plays Belgian detective Hercule Poirot), it features a parade of greats from stage and screen, including Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek
Jacobi. There is also the surprise inclusion of Sergei Polunin, the dancer who walked out of the Royal Ballet in 2012, who makes his screen debut as Count Andrenyi, an aristocrat and a ballet artist of global renown.
It’s possible that there haven’t been so many stars gathered together in one movie since the last big-screen adaptation of Murder on the Orient
Express, directed by
Sidney Lumet. The cast included Ingrid Bergman,
Albert Finney (as Poirot), Anthony Perkins and Sir
John Gielgud, and it was made in 1974.
The 2017 version, co-produced by Ridley
Scott, with a screenplay by Michael Green (the writer of Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant) sets up the classic whodunnit with 14 strangers boarding the long-distance passenger train that connects Istanbul with Paris. These include Caroline Hubbard, an American widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Dame Judi) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman). A businessman named Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered at night in the compartment next to Poirot. The train gets marooned in an avalanche and the plot follows Poirot’s interrogation of each of the passengers in the hunt for the killer.
The appeal of the film is clear – stars are not being asked to play anything run-of-the-mill. They are showcased in 1930s glamour, dressing for dinner (even on a train) and the cooks produce delicious fancies such as walnut soufflés.
“I liked the sense that I could let the audience escape into that world,” says Kenneth (56), “where the details of what the characters are touching, seeing, eating, drinking, wearing are a significant part of the pleasure.
“We live in a world where everything is so transient and quick. It seemed to me a period in which, from a piece of linen to a glass of water to an arrangement of flowers, there could be a way of evoking a parenthesis of calm in an incredibly rushed life.”
An “avid reader of crime fiction”, he last read the book years ago, but admits to being surprised when he reread it. “I’d forgotten how it worked out!
“I liked the ensemble nature of it,” he continues. “I like it being enclosed in snow, the claustrophobia. And it’s a tale that sums up the golden age of travel – a world in which you feel the miles under your feet.
“Agatha Christie described her work as entertainment and dismissed any other claims for her work. But she leaves holes,” he says. “Invitations to go a little deeper. I think she definitely asks whether revenge is worthwhile – can you forgive, when do you stop hurting? – and says that loss has to be acknowledged because it can provide a poison that can create more crime.”
He saw another, more germane, theme – what happens when a mob rules. “When feeling drives action”
– a force “we are definitely awash with”.
He had long discussions with screenwriter Michael Green and Jim Clay, the film’s production designer, about how to pin down key details from the
period. “I wanted forensic detail, so you feel as though you’ve taken residence on the train and are taken into a much more dangerous environment,” reveals Kenneth.
When the avalanche hits the train, it comes to a stop on a creaky old viaduct in the mountains. Kenneth introduces the idea that passengers can escape. ”It puts a lot of jeopardy, a ticking clock in the way of the story.”
His Poirot is slightly evolved from the original character. Everything there is to love about Poirot is here – his grooming routine, intellect and appetites. But there is also something that doesn’t appear in the novel.
“He carries some secrets that the books seem to hint at,” says producer James Prichard. And Kenneth brings another strength – ”He’s a good-looking Poirot.”
Murder on the Orient Express was first published in 1934 – six years after Agatha’s painful divorce from her first husband Archie Christie, a member of the Royal Flying Corps (and the father of her only child, Rosalind), who left her for another woman. Around a year after her divorce, she went on a trip to the Middle East and met Max Mallowan, an archaeologist, at a dig in Ur,
Iraq. She was 39 and he was
25. They were married in 1930 and stayed together until her death in 1976.
Agatha first travelled on the Orient Express in 1928 – the year of her divorce and her first solo trip abroad. For years after that, she accompanied Max on digs in Iraq and Syria, often via the Orient Express. Many of her novels are set in England, though now and then she moved the action to a setting such as a steamer in Death on the Nile or an archaeological dig in Mesopotamia.
The novelist, like many artists, drew inspiration from real-life incidents. In 1929, an Orient Express train was trapped by a blizzard in Turkey and marooned for six days. In 1931, an Orient Express train on which Agatha was travelling got stuck for 24 hours due to rainfall.
Murder on the Orient Express was filmed at Longcross Studios, in Surrey. The ensemble of stars “were very playful, ebullient and like naughty schoolchildren at times”, says Kenneth. “Judi is a big part of that. She has a capacity to switch from daftness into a concentrated performance and she encouraged the others to keep up.” (Judi would later joke that the person she’d most like to bunk up with in a railway sleeper car is co-star Josh Gad.)
And unlike many all-star-cast films, Orient Express doesn’t have famous people turning up in relays. They were all in the same railway carriage – often for hours at a time. “Typically, I need some space when I’m working, I just need to get away from everything,” says Michelle Pfeiffer (59). “So I was a little nervous about that. But fortunately, everyone was really charming and entertaining. Josh would practically do stand-up, so we certainly weren’t bored.”
“It was a festival atmosphere,” says Olivia Colman (43). “Ken would come in with quiz questions to keep us happy.”
Meanwhile, Judi (82) played everything from board games to charades and Derek Jacobi (79) did crosswords.
Istanbul station was built in the studio in Surrey as was the train itself – a majestic locomotive with four carriages. (The carriage interiors were constructed a second time to allow filming inside.) Hydraulics and air bellows beneath each carriage helped to convince the cast they were riding on an actual train, as well as virtual moving scenery on LED screens.
“If you suffer from motion sickness, as I do, it was a nightmare,” says Tom Bateman (28), who plays Bouc, Poirot’s sidekick. “I had to pop a bottle of Champagne and walk through the carriage, and talk to all the passengers and pour them Champagne. It wasn’t only motion sickness, it was a bit like trying to juggle on a unicycle.”
Kenneth’s approach was to surprise his cast with an unscripted scene to make the action more convincing, such as getting them to watch a short film related to the plot and shooting their reactions.
“I love stuff like that,” reveals Olivia. “If you think too much or prepare too much, often that is the death of it.”
“I hate first days on any film,” admits Willem Dafoe (62), who plays Gerhard Hardman, an Austrian professor. “Ken insisted on shooting perhaps the most involved interrogation scene between me and Poirot on my first day on set. He wanted the scene charged with nerves.”
Kenneth also embraced relentless precision as his guiding aesthetic. He never shot unless someone had been around with a ruler making sure each glass, plate, knife and fork was in exactly the right spot. “Every flower had to be the same height, the stalks had to be the right height, with the right level of water,” he says. “Dishes had to be historically accurate. Whatever you see being eaten is from that time.” This included a huge baked and glazed cod. “It was a time when gelatine and brawn were used a great deal. I can tell you they have a short life cycle under film lights – they get pretty whiffy.”
All the train fittings were either Orient Express originals or copied from originals, from the seats that unfolded to become beds right down to the coat hooks and door latches.
Authenticity also governed the costumes, which are mostly handmade. Alexandra Byrne, the costume designer, was “very kind because she protected my skin from all the wool,” says Michelle. “I am very sensitive to wool. I get itchy.”
Both Johnny Depp and Michelle were “very clothes-oriented”, says Kenneth, flying cast in for fittings months ahead of when they were required. “The first time I met Johnny, it was one o’clock in the morning, and he was walking up and down in the costume room at Longcross Studios, trying out coats and walking sticks.”
The fabric for Poirot’s suits was specially woven in a mill in Scotland to ensure the drape and movement was “true”. But perhaps the most startling prop is Poirot’s moustache. In the books, Poirot’s moustache is described as “gigantic” and “amazing”. In Murder on the Orient Express, he is “a little man with enormous moustaches”.
Agatha was said to be disappointed with Albert Finney’s whiskers in the 1974 film (“I wrote that my detective had the finest moustache in England,” she allegedly said. “But he didn’t in the film. I thought that was a pity.
Why shouldn’t he have the best moustache?”). Now Kenneth has set a standard of facial shrubbery that few can hope to equal. He sees it as a “visor” and a “mask” that also hints at military service.
“There is more substance and bulk, more growl in the moustache,” he says. It is also a useful aid in detection. “People around him, I certainly felt, were focusing on the moustache and not on him checking them out.”
Kenneth tried growing his own, but in the end went for a stick-on version. “Everytime you made Ken laugh, it would peel off,” tells Tom.
“I do remember getting the first email jpeg of the moustache and seeing something that took magnificence to a magnificent degree,” recalls Michael. “I just giggled to myself and thought, ’Can we create a movie where the moustache by the end doesn’t appear distracting because you are so involved in the story?’”
‘Every flower had to be the same height, the stalks had to be the right height, with the right level of water’
with her Dame Agatha
Max, second husband
t who archaeologis an
her junior. was 14 years The reclusive novelist did not approve of her books being turned into films.
Director and lead actor Sir Kenneth with Michelle Pfeiffer. The glamorous actress plays a man- eating American widow in the film. Braced for a ruff ride
are (fro m left) Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman and Dame Judi Dench.
From left: Lucy Boynton, Dame Judi, Michelle, Daisy,
Penélope Cruz and Olivia. Above inset: Penélope plays a missionary. Right: Johnny Depp, pictured with Josh Gad, stars as a businessman who is murdered.
Albert Finney’s Poirot moustache (below) didn’t excite Agatha, but perhaps Kenneth’s would be more to her taste?