There are two opinions nearly universally held among Anglophiles and Agatha Christie fans: Murder on the Orient Express is the author’s finest Hercule Poirot novel, and actor David Suchet, who has starred in 65 Christie adaptations since 1989, makes the best Poirot. So it’s fitting that Masterpiece Mystery!‘s 10th anniversary season of Hercule Poirot should kick off with Suchet’s Murder on the Orient Express. It is, as the Brits might say, bloody brilliant.
Better than that, and unlike its predecessors (think Sidney Lumet’s 1974 big-screen Albert Finney-led farce), this new Murder on the Orient Express is decidedly dark and uncomic. As in the source material, Poirot, after helping the British military solve a mystery in the Middle East, boards a Paris-bound train full of upstanding citizens from all walks of life: a governess (Jessica Chastain), a colonel (David Morrissey), a countess (Elena Satine), a secretary (Brian J. Smith), a princess (Eileen Atkins), a housewife (Barbara Hershey), a lady’s maid (Susanne Lothar), a doctor (Samuel West), a valet (Hugh Bonneville), a missionary (Marie-Josée Croze), and more. The same night the Express hits a snowbank, a cruel American millionaire (Toby Jones) dies in his cabin from multiple stab wounds. Everyone’s a suspect. Everyone’s scared. But this Poirot doesn’t waddle around, tug at his mustache, and pull the complicated solution from the air: He pounds, he yells, and, most shockingly, he cries. When he finally fingers the culprit, it is deeply unsettling—not because it’s a surprise, but because it’s the last person (or persons) he wants it to be.
In fact, the suspense of the unveiling is not finding out the baddie’s identity, but whether or not Poirot, who’s sworn to uphold the law at all times, will turn the criminal over to the police. And that’s what Murder on the Orient Express is truly about: how the best of us will compromise our principles when led by our emotions. Granted, this particular adaptation drives that point home by adding two more deaths to the story’s start (the suicide of a British solider, which is briefly mentioned in a letter in the source novel, and the stoning of a Middle Eastern adulteress). If you’re a Christie purist who’s put off by these changes, for shame: No adaptation has dug further, and more successfully, into the novelist’s obsession with the vicissitudes of justice and the lure of vigilantism until now. And while the supporting cast may not have the name recognition of Lumet’s, their talent is overwhelming, particularly in the performances of Denis Menochet (whom you may remember as the French farmer from Inglourious Basterds) as the train’s tortured attendant and French comedian Serge Hazanavicius as its bleeding-heart owner.
Murder on the Orient Express‘s only downfall is that it makes the season’s excellent two subsequent adaptations, which actually aired before it in their native Britain, feel a bit of a letdown, even when they aren’t. The first, Third Girl, stars Hex‘s Jemima Rooper as a batty young hipster who seeks out Poirot because she fears she killed her neighbor. With the help of sidekick Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wanamaker, returning for a third time), the detective discovers she runs with quite a shady crowd. One roommate has designs on her boyfriend, the other on her father (who’d been absent for most of her life anyway). Her blind uncle may not be blind; his wife may be a gold digger. And the dead neighbor? She wasn’t so hot either. Poirot cries at the end of this one too, but for very different reasons.
Lastly, there’s Appointment with Death, Christie’s meditation on the theory that certain people are so awful, someone’s bound to murder them eventually. Like Murder on the Orient Express, it’s set outside of England, this time in Petra. Lady Boyton (Cheryl Campbell), the abusive matriarch of a rich American family is poisoned and stabbed while visiting her bumbling British archeologist husband (Tim Curry) on one of his expeditions to find the skull of John the Baptist. Her adopted children, her stepson, and everyone she’d seemed to insult between the U.S. and the Middle East are all there (including Poirot). Like Third Girl, it’s a story about not trusting your relations and it’s smashing. John Hannah (already an old hat at Christie, having played a detective onMiss Marple) is wonderfully mysterious as the jocular court psychiatrist seemingly only along for the ride: Just when you start to think he could be creepy, he seduces you back into his fold. This version of the story takes its liberties, too—and, again, as with the best adaptations, they’re all worth it.