In the latest blockbuster version of the movie Murder on the Orient Express, Sir Kenneth Branagh has taken on a mighty task. Others have tried in prototype outings, notably the ageing, big screen duffers Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov. But in 1989, David Suchet came along with the definitive portrayal of Hercule Poirot. With his egg-shaped head, his perfect, twiddly moustache, his immaculate dress sense and precise timing, David Suchet was Poirot and Poirot was David Suchet. Apart from the occasion when I saw him as Timon of Athens at the Young Vic in 1991.
As the Belgian super sleuth, he was charming, engaging, but also steely in his determination to bring about justice. This was a thoroughly convincing, long-running performance, acting out every Poirot story in the canon. From his debut as a young, Belgian ex-policeman right through to the final Curtain: Poirot’s last case. This perfect Poirot appeared on screen from 1989 to 2014.
Sir Kenneth Branagh (L) and David Suchet (R)
The methods of murder varied extensively. The supporting cast changed over the years. But in every story there were some constant factors. The most striking of all was Poirot’s moustache. Perfectly trimmed and styled. Twisting up at the ends. Wide. Quirky. Suchet’s Poirot had the moustache that Agatha Christie wrote. Jet black, “stiff and military” (The Mysterious Affair at Styles).
The definitive Hercule Poirot on board the Orient Express
Suchet was happy with it. Poirot was happy with it. The moustache was perfect, even if it was perfectly silly. But for Sir Kenneth Branagh, the style had to change. Understandably, maybe. How else can you create interest when presenting a new version of a classic?
At first sight, Branagh’s moustache looks horrendous. Too grey. Way too big. Simply the wrong style altogether. He has transformed a treasured cultural artefact into a monstrosity. From black to grey. From curly to wavy. A giant caricature of a previously dear and well-loved caricature of perfection. It’s ridiculous.
And yet, in the book Murder on the Orient Express, Christie wrote about ‘a little man with enormous moustaches’. I’m not keen on the plural form of the noun, there, but we’ll let that pass. Branagh’s moustache is far from quintessential. But it’s a welcome variation, and it does have some authenticity. This is also the moustache that the author wrote, at least in terms of size.
Excessive whiskers, but surprisingly close to Agatha Christie's imagined style
But has Branagh gone too far here? I like humour. Poirot likes humour. Suchet’s Poirot is amusing, without ever quite realising how amusing he is to others. Branagh’s moustache is fun. It maintains the grand Poirot tradition of ostentation. So in this way, too, the new style makes some sense.
I had been worried that Branagh was going to turn Poirot into a buffoon. A laughing stock. Way more than just his tendency to be an ‘annoying little Frenchie’ (Yes, I know he is Belgian). A figure of raucous hilarity. Thankfully, he stopped at the moustache.
There was perhaps no need for me to worry too much. Branagh is, after all, a fine Shakespearean actor on the big screen. Known for his movies Hamlet (1997) and Henry V (1989). Also for his brilliant portrayal of the charming, self-obsessed Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in Harry Potter, Chamber of Secrets (2002).
Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, with an early version of more to come
Branagh as the wizard Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets
No problems with Sir Ken, then. But I do take issue, historically, with the previous pretenders to the role of Hercule Poirot. Peter Ustinov (1991) had what seemed to me to be the wrong hairstyle, wrong voice and wrong demeanour. Probably several other wrong features too. Too large, too broad, too avuncular.
Peter Ustinov - a bit of a twist going on there
Albert Finney’s portrayal (1974) was creepy. So creepy. With all that brilliantined hair. Horribly sleek. In his version of the Belgian detective, Finney looked much more like a prominent German politician in the 1930s and 40s. Scary.
Albert Finney - looking like a very dark figure in history
And then there was a rather lesser known version, with Alfred Molina in a TV Movie (2001), with a moustache that really didn’t go anywhere or do anything. No lift, no twists. I’d like to say a lightweight performance but that would be a guess. I have never seen this version and don’t expect I ever will.
Alfred Molina - failing to rise to the occasion
I often find I don’t care whodunnit in murder mysteries. I like the drama, the setting, the suspense. But I certainly mind who solved it. And so for me, only Suchet is truly Poirot. His portrayal was superlative and his achievement complete. And yet that’s also a problem. It’s over. This is quite a big step for me, but I have to admit I really don’t mind what Sir Kenneth Branagh has done. In letting his grey moustache bush up so extensively, Branagh has let his little grey cells run riot. The result is a noble attempt to keep alive one of the classic characters in contemporary culture. Though somewhat misguided and highly unexpected, the new moustache is welcome.
© Eddie Hewitt 2017
See the Connected Cultures review of Murder on the Orient Express here
IMDB ratings for all versions:
Ranking them in order of marks out of 10, we have:
David Suchet (2010) - 7.9
Albert Finney (1974) - 7.3
Kenneth Branagh (2017) – 6.8
Peter Ustinov (1991) - 6.5
Alfred Molina (2001) - 5.2
Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express
IMDB – Poirot (starring David Suchet) – all series details