One can be forgiven, mes amis, for experiencing a bit of deja vu this week, as our tale of murder most foul is an outsized retelling of a shorter work we’ve covered here before – “The Plymouth Express”. How does it fare? Read on!
Professional Rich Person Rufus Van Aldin (Elliott Gould (!), in “reading every line as if it were on a cue card” mode) and his daughter Ruth (Jaime Murray (!), in “trying to do an American accent by speaking as if there was a Rubik’s Cube lodged in my throat” mode) throw a party at the Park Lane Hotel, and as a guest Our Belgian gets to meet both them and Ruth’s degenerate husband Derek (James D’Arcy (!), in “drunken gambler tortured soul” mode). There’s a variety of other shady characters at the party as well, which we’ll get to in a bit.
Oh hey y’all, you’re never going to believe this, but they’re all booked on the Blue Train to Nice the very next day!
Well, at some point in the two-ish day train ride, someone takes a claw hammer to poor Ruth and steals Papa Van Aldin’s precious gemstone. Does this mean that everyone sits around forlornly contemplating tragedy and how maybe we could all just be a bit nicer to each other, and what’s really important are the human connections we forge as members of society?
Hells no! After a perfunctory bit of questioning at the station, everyone says, “Screw it, we’re on vacation anyway” and heads over to Lady Tamplin’s villa for a two day party that will for some reason include Papa Van Aldin, his secretary Knighton, the victim’s husband, a nefarious French-ish guy, and basically everyone else in the cast.
Did I mention the husband? Because there’s the husband, OBVS, who’s in deep to the French-ish Comte La Roche for gambling debts. There’s the might-actually-be-broke Lady Tamplin and her carefree daughter Lenox (Alice Eve(!), in “what in God’s name have you done to your hair for this role?” mode). Tamplin’s idiot husband, Corky. Papa Van Aldin, first seen acquiring precious gem the Heart of Fire in a back alley and punching his way out of said alley. Knighton, whose limp comes and goes depending on whether or not he’s dancing. Also, a maid, Mason. There’s always a maid. Wait, did I mention the heir? There’s newly-minted millionaire Katherine Grey, who’s just inherited a bunch of money and who blames the Van Aldins for her father’s suicide. She’s not used to traveling in social circles, and buddies up to Our Belgian pretty quickly.
Wot I Liked:
OK, let’s be fair: I quite liked “Plymouth Express”, and thought it was one of the better short adaptations that paid a lot of attention to being a mournful, tragic affair that showed how grief can have devastating and sometimes uplifting repercussions.
This is not “Plymouth Express”.
This is a campier, louder, funnier treatment of essentially the same source material rewritten to novel length by Dame Agatha and extended out to have the investigation proper take place while everyone’s off partying in Nice. It throws in another attempted murder, too. And that’s OK!
Once again the supporting cast makes even the dullest moments at least watchable, and if luminaries like Gould basically sleepwalk through their parts, there’s a couple of folks that deliver great performances. James D’Arcy as Derek Kettering is absolutely great basically just doing his James D’Arcy thing. Nicholas Farrell (who last popped up as a suspect in the series’ adaptation of The ABC Murders) gets a good turn as Knighton, and all credit in the world to Georgina Rylance as Katherine Grey; Rylance plays Grey perfectly, someone new to the jet-setting world of the rich, a little bit embarrassed and a little bit scared, but eminently sweet and someone you root for. Her scenes with Suchet are great, and she sells both happiness and sadness in equal measure.
I also liked the bit of metacommentary during The Denouement, with various characters remarking on how they know how this works, would Poirot just get on with it, and so forth. In a less self-aware adaptation it wouldn’t have worked, but here I think it does, as does a wink and nod to the forthcoming trip on the Orient Express.
The plot remains relatively unchanged as well, and there’s far less of a focus on train schedules and obtuse foreign stock schemes than in the shorter version, which is excellent. It keeps the characters front and center, and honestly does a good job of even stringing out the “Was it Ruth who really died or was even the intended victim?” question pretty far into the episode.
Wot I Not Liked:
First off, the music is way on top of everything else in this episode, especially during the party in Nice – to the point where I honestly wished it would just go away, and I don’t think I’ve ever said that about an episode of the series.
Second, where “Blue Train” fails hard is in a convincing relationship between the killer Knighton – actually a jewel thief who ripped off Lady Tamplin years ago – and his lover, the maid Mason. I get that we’re not supposed to divine any kind of a relationship at all between them up until the reveal, but post-reveal and in flashbacks it’s just never sold. There’s even a weird “escape” sequence where Knighton holds Katherine at… er… jewelpoint, legs it, Mason sort of… screams a bit? Or something? To stop Poirot from pursuing her lover, I guess. Anyway, Knighton then throws himself in front of an oncoming train because… reasons. It just all sort of falls apart dramatically post-reveal, is what I’m saying.
And again, “Blue Train” doesn’t carry anywhere near the tragedy or emotional heft of “Plymouth Express” (or its brutal murder scene) – but it’s not trying to, either, despite weird subplots about Van Aldin’s wife being sent to a convent and his lover Mirelle he basically pimps out (made ickier when one considers Mirelle is played by Josette Simon, one of the remarkably few Black actors in the series; to her credit though, Simon does nail a few haunting lines near the end that make her more of a character than a plot device).
Van Aldin, incidentally, is a lot more of a terrible person in general in “Blue Train”, a change I’m not really on board with as I really thought his portrayal in “Plymouth Express” was part of what made that episode so affecting.
But overall I liked “The Mystery of the Blue Train” a lot better than I remembered, once I engaged it on its own terms; to its credit, it doesn’t feel particularly padded out or plodding – the beginning hotel setpiece, the train ride itself, and the ending in Nice all feel like their own thing, and I enjoyed a lot of it as a poor man’s Orient Express. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
Next Week on Poirot: Zoe Wanamaker makes her series debut as Christie stand-in Ariadne Oliver when a mysterious rich dude (are there any other kind?) hosts a party with dire consequences. Who will end up with aces and eights? Find out in… “Cards on the Table”!