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Branagh and Poirot — An Enduring Partnership

6 min read
Kenneth Branagh's Poirot

In 1920, author Agatha Christie released her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring an eccentric Belgian detective named . She would go on to write over 60 Poirot books before her death in 1976. Since the character's introduction over a century ago, he has become one of the most iconic fictional detectives of all time, rivalling Sherlock Holmes in popularity, despite Christie's eventual disdain towards him.

On-screen, Poirot has most famously been played by actor David Suchet in the ITV television series which ran from 1989 to 2013. Among others, the likes of John Malkovich, Orson Welles, Ian Holm and John Moffatt have all brought their own unique interpretations to the role.

Arguably the most famous cinematic version of the character is Peter Ustinov's, who first played the role in 1978's Death on the Nile (initially replacing Albert Finney), and who earned an Oscar nomination for Murder on the Orient Express (1974), reprising the role a further five times. Since then, Poirot has mostly been confined to TV and radio — until came along with his soon-to-be trilogy of films. With his third (and possibly final) Poirot film, A Haunting in Venice, due out in September, the reawakened interest in the murder mystery genre is now the ultimate riddle to solve, with his portrayal of Poirot differing from his predecessors', and indeed, Christie's herself.

Why is Poirot such an enduring character? A small, moustachioed Belgian man who everyone assumes is French, he is essentially a blank canvas. Christie rarely expanded upon her initial outline of the man and eventually grew irritated by him, describing him as, among other things, a ‘creep'. The reason is simple: without Poirot, there's no mystery, which is the appeal of the stories in the first place.

Poirot is often the most intelligent person in the room, able to spot details others may have missed, and for filmmakers, the opportunity to focus on seemingly mundane things and drop clues into the narrative is how they entice people to watch the film, to see how the story unfolds, to spot the red herrings and wonder if Poirot will reach the same conclusion.

He's the archetypal private detective, the fly in the ointment whose presence is usually the only thing that prevents the criminal from getting away with murder — if he wasn't there, it would be the perfect crime. He's a frustrating conundrum, a belligerent genius, a fascinating enigma. He has companions and allies but is arguably too self-absorbed to notice when people are showing genuine concern for him. Despite this, he's not above empathy or understanding and isn't always able to keep his composure.

Prior to Branagh's reinvention, Ustinov's Poirot was the most iconic of the big-screen versions. His Poirot was jovial, almost comical, yet with a keen eye for wrongdoing and a genuine pang of sympathy for the victim, even if he had run-ins with them himself. Ustinov was also fluent in multiple languages, so his accent is more accurate than others have been. Albert Finney's performance in the first Murder on the Orient Express was rather theatrical, scuttling around the train like an obsessive spider.

Branagh's Poirot is remarkably similar in personality to Ustinov's, but his performances recall Finney's. Like Ustinov, he does not hide his disdain for people he doesn't like. Consider the scene between himself and Ratchett in Murder on the Orient Express where he says he ‘does not like' Ratchett's heavily scarred face, a fact that later propels his refusal to reveal the truth to the Yugoslavian police, justifying it with the idea that Rachett was a villain who deserved what he got. He also hates being made a fool of and has no time for disorganisation. And like Finney, Branagh leans heavily on the opportunity to be more overt in his mannerisms, to chew on the scenery as often as possible. Yet Branagh's re-interpretation goes further than any other has gone before.

Branagh not only plays Poirot in his films, but he also directs them and he is not a director known for subtlety or fast-paced storytelling (Hamlet, released in 1996, is over four hours long). Branagh's Poirot films are wildly exaggerated, substituting the rather staid personality of the page to a more physical presence; he chases after suspects, uses his walking stick as a weapon, is a WW1 veteran and is considerably taller and thinner than Poirot is usually portrayed.

His perfectionist tendencies are taken to the extreme- if Ustinov's Poirot refused to eat the meal ordered by Colonel Race on his behalf, Branagh's sends back one dessert because it leaves an odd number on the table. His fastidiousness becomes a trait rather than a habit. It also, as befits a perfectionist, becomes the catalyst for his solving of the crime.

Branagh also tries to delve deeper into who Poirot is, and what makes him tick beyond the need for balance in the world. Very few directors of Poirot films have felt the need to give his moustache a backstory, but Branagh isn't merely adapting Christie's work, he wants to make it his own.

To that end, Poirot becomes a war hero injured in battle and who loses the love of his life in a mortar attack, carrying her photograph around with him wherever he goes. He grows a moustache to hide the scarring he receives because of his injuries. The character of Salome Otterbourne, now a jazz singer rather than a novelist, serves as a de-facto love interest for Poirot, the only passenger on the steamer who senses something tender and sensitive beneath his extravagant facial hair.

Most modern-day detectives owe some sort of debt to Poirot. Figures like Benoit Blanc have been directly inspired by Poirot, and specifically Branagh's version of him. Like Branagh, Daniel Craig uses an exaggerated accent to play Blanc and he's at the front and centre of Rian Johnson's films in the same way Branagh's is in his.

Johnson brings in big names like Christopher Plummer and Edward Norton to support Craig, but always keeps Blanc at the forefront. Branagh has cast names such as Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Gal Gadot, Annette Bening, Sophie Okonedo, Johnny Depp, and Michelle Pfieffer to appear alongside him, but they are all used in support of him. Films like Knives Out/Glass Onion, Murder Mystery/Murder Mystery 2 and See How They Run were all released after Murder on the Orient Express, breathing new life back into the murder mystery genre amid a craze of superheroes and legacy sequels.

Branagh's films present visually striking backdrops and add multiple sub-plots that seek to develop the list of suspects- in Murder on the Orient Express, Miss Hubbard directly interacts with Ratchett, a seemingly innocuous conversation given new light once the truth is revealed. In Death on the Nile (2022), Miss Bowers and Marie Van Schulyer, played by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, are changed from mere chambermaid and boss to a couple, a far cry from the bickering between Bette Davis and Maggie Smith in the original film.

To update the films for modern audiences, Branagh makes them considerably more cinematic, with expansive camera work, lavish costumes, and more emphasis on suspense. Poirot is less of a mere irritant and more a genuine nuisance, using his seemingly cold personality to catch his suspects off guard, to perhaps get them to reveal something they would not otherwise have said.

Under the keen eye of Kenneth Branagh, Hercule Poirot has found his relevance again. Agatha Christie's infuriating detective with the ‘little grey cells' remains the standard by which every other must be judged. The Branagh Poirot is not the character Christie imagined when she first created him in 1916, but like Bond and Batman, he has undergone a transformation that is equal parts dramatic and understandable. After all, Christie's books could be formulaic — that's not something that applies to Kenneth Branagh.

A Haunting in Venice is available to watch now.