You’ve almost certainly read something by Agatha Christie. She is after all the most widely read novelist in history, with sales in excess of two billion copies worldwide. If you haven’t read her books, you will probably have seen a film adaption of one of them – there have been 23 in the UK alone, not counting television series. And now we have the latest addition to the canon, a remake of Murder on the Orient Express, a classic whodunnit with 14 strangers stranded on the eponymous train as it travels between Paris and Istanbul, when a businessman is murdered in the compartment next to our hero, Hercule Poirot. More than 80 years after its initial publication, the story that unfolds continues to exert an incredible hold over people.
Murder on the Orient Express was last filmed in 1974 and starred relative newcomers Vanessa Redgrave and Jacqueline Bisset alongside established heavyweights such as Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud and Albert Finney as the fictional detective. In the public’s mind, David Suchet is commonly connected with the role, and is often held to be the consummate incarnation of the Belgian super sleuth courtesy of his turn as Poirot on television in 2010. The latest, 2017 incarnation, released in November, is directed by and stars Kenneth Branagh, who plays Poirot. Branagh, here sporting a magnificent moustache described in the book as ‘the finest in England’, is joined by a stellar ensemble cast from stage and screen anxious to get in on the act. Look out for turns by Dame Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Coleman and Willem Dafoe among others.
Aside from the chance to work with Branagh and co-producer Ridley Scott, the apparent appeal of the film lies in its ability to capture the intrigue and mystique, magic and romance of travel, and of rail journeys in particular. It is the faithful reproduction of the 1930’s era and forensic attention to detail applied to the great rail journey at the heart of the story that is most striking – the Orient Express is every bit as a much a character as the rest of the cast. The setting is sumptuous and audiences watching the film will get an excellent impression of what it meant to travel on this luxury rail journey, escaping into a bygone era at the time of the golden age of travel. They will be able to feel the miles under the wheels of the rolling stock, even though the train itself, an impressive locomotive and four exquisite Art Deco carriages, was recreated using fittings from the original Orient Express or clever copies of originals, at a studio in Surrey. Istanbul station, all giant columns, platforms and tracks, was also built here for the purpose of filming.
Authenticity saturates the new film, from the way the banquette seats in each cabin convert into sleeping bunks, to the look of the marquetry and wood panelling, Art Deco fixtures and fittings. The details in the film such as characters popping champagne and mingling in the bar car for pre-dinner cocktails to dressing up to the nines for dinner and dining on delicious multi-course meals in stunning surrounds, mean that cinema goers will also be able to understand instantly the appeal and allure of travelling on the beautifully restored train in 2017-18, today known as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
Agatha Christie herself was a frequent traveller on the Orient Express. She first took the train in the autumn of 1928 and subsequently made repeat journeys on it as she accompanied her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, to digs in Iraq and Syria. She used these journeys as first-hand inspiration when drafting her crime caper and turned to historical events for more stimulus; in 1929 an Orient Express train was trapped in a blizzard in Turkey and marooned for six days. Two years later Christie herself was trapped on a train for 24 hours when heavy rainfall resulted in floods that washed away sections of the Orient Express train track. Some details are entirely fictional though; for instance, there has never been an actual murder onboard.
In the course of her travels, Christie was also a frequent guest of the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, a grand place to stay built in 1892 close to the main terminus that specifically catered to passengers using the Orient Express. She favoured room 411 and is reputed to have written Murder on the Orient Express on a stay here, although she put Poirot up in the hotel’s one-time rival, which sadly is no more.
In the story, when the train is struck by an avalanche somewhere north of Belgrade, a key stopping point on the route from Paris to Istanbul, it comes to a halt in a snowdrift. It’s here that the titular murder takes place. The route retraced in the film, first taken in 1883, fell into disrepair during the mid-twentieth century. By the late 70’s, services to Istanbul were suspended. The train was subsequently bought and rescued by the American entrepreneur James B Sherwood, who restored the dangerously dilapidated old carriages. It has since been taken on by the hotel connoisseurs at Belmond. Services featuring the fully refurbished original 1920s and 30s carriages restarted and today the train, under its new moniker the Venice Simplon-Orient Express, plies various routes across Europe. Travelling on it in the twenty first century is like stepping back in time to a more congenial and elegant era, like spending time on a living work of art.
Murder on the Orient Express. An extraordinary story. An extraordinary train.
Although the luxury train, which operates between March and November, is now more readily associated with a great rail journey from London to Venice that lets passengers experience the glamour and sophistication the service was renowned for in its heyday, it also now visits various European cities of distinction including Vienna, Verona, Budapest and Berlin on separate sorties. First among the contemporary services though is an annual retracing of the original journey from Paris to Istanbul, which has a more involved itinerary and a greater historical resonance. This signature trip, often referred to as the Grand Tour, even concludes with the chance stay in the strikingly refurbished Pera Palace; for the ultimate pilgrimage, spend the night in Agatha Christie’s faithfully preserved room. Next year’s outbound trip runs from August 24-29 2018, while the return leg travels back from August 31 to September 5.