How Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot Effectively Updates The Detective For A Modern Audience
He stands in a confined room, with anxious eyes on him. The man began ticking off all the clues he uncovered during an investigation. Several knife marks on the victim’s body are deeper than others. A suspect has been lying about his true identity this whole time. Everything is laid out, there can be no more secrets. Someone is a murderer and Hercule Poirot knows exactly who. Over a lifetime in 33 novels, multiple film and TV adaptations, Poirot’s status has repeatedly found new life. It owes its delectable precision to its creator, author Agatha Christie, an icon of the golden age of detective fiction. She found great literary success with her puzzle-like detective stories. And although she created many sleuths for her readers, Mrs. Marple being another of her most famous, it was Poirot whose popularity spanned over 100 years from her original debut. By directing and starring in two modern blockbusters focused on the Belgian detective, Kenneth Branagh left his personal mark, revitalizing the character for audiences old and new.
From his many appearances on the page and on screen, Poirot epitomized the definition of “dandy”. He was formal, proper, and took care of his mustache with love. The meticulous facial hair could be a character in itself. On the website of Agatha Christie, the author’s “home”, it said better: “Perhaps even more famous than the man himself is his mustache. Luxurious, magnificent, immense and carefully neat, the mustache precedes Poirot in a room, it’s a unique talking point, it’s provocative and it has a character of its own. Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022), whose extravagant mustache qualifies under these terms. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, another popular English creation, which used inductive means to solve the crime in question, Poirot used deduction, relying on his “little gray cells” to piece it all together. And while Branagh doesn’t come close to looking short and solid in literature, it can be excused for what replaces it.
Humor is widely developed with his Poirot, in particular through his studious TOC. His preoccupations outside of solving crimes may be ridiculous, but that never feels against character. Hard-boiled eggs must be symmetrical, otherwise his appetite may be ruined. While accidentally stepping in a pile of animal droppings, Poirot’s discomfort is alleviated by intervening with his other shoe. Once again, perfect order was assured, mocking his TOC and pushing him further. Screenwriter of both films, Michael Green, did not rely solely on humor to present an engaging Poirot. Green chose to delve deeper into the ensemble cast, which was not only to complicate the inner lives and emotions of the suspects, but Poirot’s as well. In the books, Poirot, like other Golden Age sleuths, had a thin backstory, just enough for the whodunit formula. The riddle of the crime, its clues and the solution were the main draw. Characterization was limited. In an interview with The Script Lab, Green went in a different direction, saying, “Agatha Christie’s writing doesn’t explore the character’s emotions as much as it notes the emotions. I wanted to give the impression that these are real things experienced by real people. That doesn’t mean you can’t have heightened fun or comedy moments. It’s a pretty dark story about a dark murder avenging an even darker murder. I wanted to make it feel like all of these things were happening to these people with a truer inner life that I don’t think has ever really been done.
In Murder on the Orient Express, justice has failed in the past and its lasting effects have led to murder on board. Poirot comes to understand that his own moral compass and sense of order cannot always be seen as the perfect answer. In Death on the Nile, Green went further and provided some backstory. In a prologue when Poirot was a young Belgian soldier in World War I, he was caught in an explosion. This is not fatal to him, but he ends up with wounds on his face, a scar that he will cover with his extravagant mustache. His lover Katherine (Susannah Fielding) visits him as he recovers, though tragedy is soon to come. She is killed in an explosion and in his pain, Poirot has sworn never to seek love again. On the doomed sail on the Nile, he begins to develop feelings for blues singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo). He rediscovers his need for companionship, though the central crime and his brutal interrogation during the investigation bring him to the brink of dissatisfaction. All of these various characterization elements presented a more complicated Poirot. In an interview with Deadline, Branagh noted the charm blended into the deeper layers. “Poirot, on the other hand, is someone whose obsessive-compulsive personality is very expressive,” he said. present was a more interior Poirot, too, someone more melancholy and lonely and isolated.
A signature departure (or addition) was the agility inserted. For Murder and Death, Poirot retained all his qualities as an observer but if necessary, he could manage in a confrontation with a suspect. The quiet, contemplative Poirot of past appearances, who stayed away, was long gone. It makes sense for the energy displayed in Branagh’s films. He is leaner, faster and stronger. In both films, a foot chase occurs, but it’s Death on the Nile which improves a major defect of Murder on the Orient Express. In the latter, a short chase sequence on the snowy train is a red herring and so obviously creeps into the film to wake up anyone in the audience. Josh GadMcQueen attempts to burn evidence. He doesn’t get far with Poirot chasing him, the two running down the wooden bridge the train is stuck on. Green’s method of picking up the pace is not useless, but in Death it makes more logical sense in the plot. During a tense interrogation between Poirot and a suspect, a gunshot rings out, like the best kind of jump scare. The killer has struck again and Poirot does what he must. He pursues the killer, nearly catching up with him throwing an ax to strike flesh or bone. While it might seem like this version of Poirot might spill into “action hero” territory, it works with the setup at hand. One murder, if not more, has been committed. Shouldn’t there be high stakes?
Actor Albert Finney played Poirot on his own murderous train ride in 1974, remaining the only actor to play the character and earn an Oscar nomination for the portrayal. Finney was a more angry Poirot but more or less stuck to the literary elements associated with the detective. The quintessential take was the least creative, with David Suchetthe performance of Poirot by Agatha Christie on PBS being so precisely what was in Christie’s books, from her mannerisms to her appearance. The theatrics was a major aspect of the character, in all versions, with his usual persistence in bringing all the suspects together for a big final reveal, which he bravely gave in to.
Once again, Death on the Nile ups the ante compared to its predecessor. After the interrogation gone wrong, Poirot considers solving the crime on the sleek ship extremely personal. So much so that the tension builds for Poirot not only rounding up the suspects, but holding a gun that he will use if necessary. We are far from the adaptations with Finney or Suchet, or even from the typical thriller formula where the violence often remained at the central crime. With Branagh, justice will be served even if it means his Poirot will have to have his hands bled.
For some, these two contemporary blockbusters and their changes or additions might be a bit too much to handle. Maybe it’s too distracting from solving mysterious puzzles. But the longevity of the Belgian detective has survived all this time after the golden age of detective fiction. A start is necessary to keep things fresh. Modern audiences are more familiar with characters who act rather than sit and quietly observe. While retaining some stoic traits, Branagh’s take on the character is refreshing. His performance may be grittier, but he knows very well the importance of Hercule Poirot in the world of cinema and in pop culture in general.
How does Kenneth Branagh’s “Death on the Nile” compare to the novel?
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