Praising With Faint Condemnation
You may recall that I recently blasted the David Suchet Murder On the Orient Express — and I stand by that blasting. However, while I was researching that, I found out about a “modernized” 2001 made-for-TV version starring Alfred Molina, mostly by way of people shouting “Stay away! Stay away!”
Well, my curiosity was piqued to the point that I had Netflix shoot it off my way and took a look at it. And given my reaction to the last one, it may surprise you to hear that my verdict is: “It’s not that bad.” Or possibly, “It’s not bad for what it is.”
Is it Hercule Poirot? No. Let’s face it, the character of Poirot doesn’t really work outside of his historical context, and even if he did, Alfred “Throw Me the Idol, I’ll Throw You the Whip” Molina doesn’t really work as Poirot. He’s huge, he’s earthy; he’d make a great Larry Talbot. But a prim and dainty little detective? No. And for what it’s worth, the filmmakers seem aware of this: they downplay the eccentricity of the character, and instead introduce a pointless “exotic love interest” character to try to set up a sort of “Hercule Poirot, International Man of Mystery.” That doesn’t work either, but it’s not any fault of Alfred Molina’s, it’s just a dumb idea.
Made in the dot-com boom, a lot of the modernization revolves around technology: Daisy Armstrong’s father becomes a sort of Steve Jobs-ish software guru (as does his college pal, Arbuthnot), and Poirot finds several clues by looking up the Armstrong case on the internet — much to the outrage of many of the commenters I found about this film. But I didn’t have a problem with that: if you’re going to modernize a story, modernize it! I also think it’s worth giving the filmmakers points for addressing the fact that the “real” Orient Express has been more or less defunct since the ’70s , by having M. Bouc talk about his company’s revitalization of the line.
So, why am I more forgiving of this low-budget clunker than I am of the David Suchet version? It’s all about where you set the bar. This version makes no pretense of being a faithful adaptation of Christie’s work. Like the Margaret Rutherford “Miss Marple” movies, it uses Christie’s work as a launching pad to create its own thing. Does it succeed brilliantly? Well, no. There is some seriously clunky exposition and the only character to really make an impression is Ratchett himself. But at the same time, it’s not the slap in the face that the Suchet one was, either, and so I find myself feeling a lot more friendly towards it.
 “The Orient Express” has a complex genealogy. You can still ride “an” Orient Express today, but it’s not the one Agatha Christie was writing about.