The mystery of David Suchet’s grey cells

Last year, Murder On The Orient Express was remade by Kenneth Branagh with him also starring as Hercule Poirot.  I missed its theatrical run but caught it the other day on TV.  It took some time for me to warm up to Branagh but I gradually came to appreciate his take on Agatha Christie’s iconic creation.  At least more so than Albert Finney’s own essay of said role in the 1974 version of Orient Express.  I had to think that this was at least partly because, unlike Finney, Branagh had David Suchet as a reference.

In fact, like most Poirot fans, I couldn’t not wonder what Suchet would have done with the role all the while that I was watching the film.  That I felt strangely empty at the end further convinced me that, yes, Suchet would have done the trick.

Interestingly, it was another famous ‘Poirot’ – Peter Ustinov – who told Suchet that he would play Poirot well.  Suchet describes feeling reluctant, initially, because (a) he had grown up believing Agatha Christie wasn’t great fiction and (b) Poirot was a joke, a kind of clown.  Indeed, Suchet’s elder brother, a newscaster by profession, strongly advised him against it.

It was when I read this that I realised why the previous renderings of Poirot had felt so ‘wrong’ to me as a fan of the Poirot novels.  I understand why others, specifically those who don’t particularly like Agatha Christie or Hercule Poirot, may have related to the way Finney played him. Or even Ustinov.  Sherlock Holmes, the archetypal fictional detective, is all action, fencing and all, flamboyant and of singular personality.  And this has perhaps shaped general expectations of what a detective ought to be like.  Vigilant, restless for clues with magnifying glass readily at hand, keen eyed, this is what a detective is supposed to be like.  And if he isn’t any of that, then maybe a bombastic, loud jerk who happens to be gifted with intellect will do.  Which is kind of how Finney plays it.  Watch at 2:19 in the trailer of the 1974 Orient Express.

But, but, you see, for a Poirot fan, this is pitched too loud.  Mais oui, Poirot is arrogant and not afraid to boast and yet he is introverted and self contained.  He is fond of admonishing Hastings for wishing to see action, saying he would prefer to do nothing but sit in the chair and close his eyes and think (which only lulls Hasting into sound sleep).

It is not difficult to see why this would probably not play out so well on the big screen.  Add to that his quirky physical features and traits and habits – eggheaded but with a beautiful moustache, fastidious and neatly turned out and yet awkward, belligerently firm in his conviction that he cannot approve of murder and yet possessed of almost feminine and feline like grace. These do make for a very interesting character (and hence why Christie’s Poirot novels sold fabulously well) but not for a whole lot of action.

And yet, Suchet, upon reading the books, did see what we Poirot fans can and always have.  He visualised Poirot exactly the way we did. That is it, really.  When you see Suchet playing Poirot, you don’t wonder to what extent he is doing justice to it, you KNOW he IS Poirot.  Like he just leapt out of the book.

I quote his words:  “The Poirot in the books was nothing like the character I’d seen on screen: elusive, pedantic, and most of all, more human.”  –  yes! yes! yes! – and “I was convinced that I could bring out the true Poirot, as Agatha Christie had written him, to life.”

And thank God he did!  For, without Suchet’s marvellous insight, we may have never had a Poirot who actually embodied the character.  Having watched many adaptations of books, there aren’t many TV/movie characters I can think of who live their original fiction inspirations to the extent Suchet did. Maybe Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon in the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy TV series but because Suchet essayed Poirot in so many episodes, we got to see many more shades of the character over a period of time.

In spite of being warned by his brother that Poirot would not be taken seriously, Suchet, already then a well known theatre actor, took up the labours of Hercule Poirot and gifted us Poirot fans something to cherish for a lifetime.  If you ever wondered what those delightful Poirot short stories would look like in visual form, all you have to do is watch one of the many episodes of the Suchet-Poirot TV series. And it’s not only Suchet, to give credit where due, but the entire cast and indeed the environment that is true to the book.  It’s Christie’s quaint old England coming to life.  Why, even the title music was perfect. Quiet but mysterious and with a sense of foreboding.

And so, after watching Branagh’s competent and visually striking but somewhat laboured film, I trawled through the internet ocean and learnt that, yes, ITV had in fact made a TV movie based on Murder of the Orient Express and, yes, it had none other Suchet playing Poirot.

I found it on YouTube and watched it post haste.  I am afraid I can’t say the film itself was much better than the other two versions.  A little better, maybe, but the problem, perhaps, is the story itself is uncharacteristic of the Christie mould.  There is less ‘logical deduction’ here and it’s more of a morality play.  These, again, may be the reasons it is seen as an appealing one to adapt.  Its issues are more relatable to cinema.  Add the sunset of the Empire settings and it offers a visually dazzling and emotionally charged canvas.  Branagh is strangely subdued in the climax though Pfeiffer rises to the challenge in the one scene where she gets to utilise her acting chops (as with most multi starrers, the star studded cast including Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench has not very much to do).

*SPOILER ALERT* And that, mon cher ami, is where Suchet makes all the difference.  For he understands Poirot like no other actor.  And he knows his beloved little Belgian friend does not approve of murder and, therefore, how painful the moral dilemma he is confronted with here must be for him.  The torment comes through as he counsels against condoning revenge, warning that we will all become savages as we let this pass.  And yet, when asked why, when they did seek due legal recourse, were they denied justice he has no answers.  With anguish that is not fully quelled even as he walks away from the scene, Poirot must, for once, go against his own moral credo.  And Suchet brings out exactly what that means to Poirot and yet why Poirot, of all detectives, can be thought of as possessing the necessary humanity to make such a judgment.

Till the very end, till Curtain was essayed bringing down curtains on the TV series once and for all, Suchet exerted his own formidable grey cells to bring to life the peculiar nuances of this most peculiar detective.  And did it with the greatest respect for the character, rising above the temptation to titillate by caricaturing him.  Yes, there but for the grace of God, goes David Suchet. Au revoir!


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