Nearly 90 years ago, in 1928, Agatha Christie took her first trip on the Orient Express, the trans-European railway famed for its opulence and glamour. The journey obviously made an impression. Describing it as “the train of my dreams”, she soon found a use for the setting: as the backdrop for the eighth of her Hercule Poirot mysteries. The World’s Greatest Detective on the World’s Most Famous Train proved to be an irresistible combination, and Murder On The Orient Express, published in 1934, became the best known, and best loved, of her books.
Now the perennially popular murder-mystery arrives on the big screen, pulling in with a lavish setting, an all-star complement of passengers/suspects and a few newly added twists and turns to keep the audience guessing. On the luxurious locomotive, 13 strangers quickly become suspects when they are snowbound and a passenger is murdered. Poirot finds himself against the clock, battling to crack a seemingly unsolvable case before the killer strikes again.
For Sir Kenneth Branagh, who takes on dual duties directing and starring as the moustachioed Belgian detective, the sophisticated setting from a bygone era was perfect for this tale of murder and revenge.
“It’s exciting, glamorous, romantic,” he says of the evocative location. “And it’s marooned in a dangerous place here as well, so it becomes a claustrophobic, confined environment in which people can be tested, nerves can be frayed. It’s the stuff of great storytelling.”
The big question for this whodunnit is who’sinnit – and the answer seems to be almost everyone. The passenger list includes Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Dame Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer.
For a story set in the 1930s, Branagh and his team employed some up-to-date techniques to recreate the stranded train. Fake carriages mounted on giant gimbals, which provided a gentle, train-like rocking motion, were constructed, and footage shot in Europe was played on pin-sharp LED screens outside the windows. The effect was so realistic that the cast occasionally found themselves suffering from motion sickness.
“When you come back to a tale like Agatha Christie’s, you not only have a tremendous piece of entertainment, but you’ve also got something that touches quite deeply on loss and grief and revenge,” says Branagh. “The chance to combine a vicarious ride in the golden age of travel with the characters embodied by these incredible actors was what was really exciting to me.”
Making a scheduled stop at a Picturehouse cinema near you this autumn, Murder On The Orient Express promises to be a first-class trip.
Q&A Kenneth Branagh
The director and star of Murder On The Orient Express on his moustache and motion sickness…
Well, you’re very kind. Agatha Christie describes it in the books as immense and so that’s what we decided to do. The moustache is protection and it’s a provocation. He can hide behind it, but also when people ridicule it, sneer at it, or dismiss him, they underestimate him – and therefore his job as a detective becomes simpler. And in fact, part of Poirot’s style is an unashamed delight in that piece of his own personal vanity. But it turns out, along with his accent, and his funny little ways, to be something that – as he says – puts people off guard. They dismiss him, and then he can analyse their truth that much more swiftly.
They painstakingly built a fully functioning period authentic locomotive and carriages from the Orient Express during the golden, glamorous age of travel. It was a train that moved. We had Istanbul station at Longcross. All of our actors were passengers on the train down the leafy lanes of Surrey, pretending to be the former Yugoslavia. It was through the magic of cinema, and a great deal of actual rail track, that we were able to do it. In fact, quite a lot of us got motion sickness just through being on the train in Surrey.
I did not look at it and that was a conscious decision. Our goal was to try and find a new approach. That’s why I think classic stories are worth retelling.
I think we’ve had a chance, with the blessing of James (Prichard) and the Agatha Christie Company, to be inventive and a bit imaginative with the story. I think there are some surprises. It does ask quite a stark question about whether revenge, or an eye for an eye, is finally a good or satisfying way to avenge even the most terrible of crimes.