“There is right, there is wrong… and then there is this.”
2017’s update on Murder on the Orient Express is directed by Kenneth Branagh, and stars Branagh himself in the lead role. It also features one of the year’s best ensembles, that includes up-and-coming stars like Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad, award-winning household names like Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe. This is the second time Agatha Christie’s novel has been adapted for the big screen, with the previous iteration coming in 1974.
While the book and the previous adaptation have been around for a very long time, I won’t assume that anyone knows the story or its ending. As a reviewer, I didn’t know it, and haven’t read or seen any other iteration. Without spoiling anything that is not in the trailer, (or the title,) the film centers around a murder aboard a train, with a cast of characters who may not all be what they seem, and “probably the greatest detective in the world,” Hercule Poirot. As the mystery unravels, Poirot begins to find that his own instincts about crime and justice are inadequate in the face of the fractured world that evil and injustice create.
This nuance and character arc in what feels like a traditional “whodunit” must be what makes this source material so famous. The detective genre has no shortage of quirky leads, like Sherlock or Clouseau, or anyone in Clue, and we tend to want them to stay quirky or snarky, even when pressed. But Branagh’s Poirot, who has no shortage of quirk himself, has to change the way he sees the world in order to properly solve the case. This may be an old story, but it’s refreshing to see morality be so complicated in a big-budget popcorn flick. Since this is the only version of this story I have experienced, it is difficult to distinguish between the story and the adaptation; although, I can say without hesitation that I loved the story, but could imagine a better interpretation. The mystery itself gets unfortunately lost at times, and the resolution rushed, but for better and for worse, the moral complexity and its transformative work on the detective is the focus of this film.
It’s easy to see the world in black and white, right and wrong, with no gray area. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long lingering over a particularly difficult topic to see how much remains in the middle; muddied, bewildering, and complex. We might do well to remember how much of the Bible deals with the complexities of life, and what it means to do the right thing. If everything were so simple and cut and dry, I imagine our scriptures would be much shorter.
To be fair, though, there are some things that are simple that we make unnecessarily complex. One of the tragic byproducts of the postmodern, “relativity” generation is the loss of truth, wherein a person can say something on tape, and simply deny it ever happened and be believed by millions. I think it’s important to maintain that morality is sometimes murky, and sometimes it is clear as day. In Murder, I think we are meant to understand that not every case or every crime requires this much wrestling and nuance. This is not to say, if you have seen the film, that the conclusions reached are the most just or righteous – I make no claim either way. It is not the conclusion, but the posture of humility, from which we can perhaps learn a great deal.
But in a broken world, we have to realize that not all justice is perfect. As people who live between Genesis and Revelation, between the world where God has promised to right every wrong, and the one in which brokenness and sin cause us each to hurt and fracture one another, that we might be people who dwell in the murkiness of justice. Until God’s perfect love and justice come, we can only do our best to live into it, while accepting that some brokenness may never heal and some things may require more than our justice can assuage. We ought to be bold in proclaiming the promises of God to one day wipe away every tear and destroy evil and injustice. But we ought to also remain humble and patient in our efforts to apply that justice now in a world that is so fractured – recognizing our own complicity and limitations.