”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” (2005) Review
Although considered one of her most famous novels, 1934’s ”Murder on the Orient Express” was not the first of Christie’s novels that featured a famous luxury train as a setting. The year 1928 saw the publication of another novel called ”The Mystery of the Blue Train”, which told the story of a brutal murder aboard the famous Blue Train.
This story had its origins in Christie’s 1922 novella, ”The Plymouth Express”, which told the story of the murder of an Australian heiress. Christie took that story and expanded it into a full-length novel, ”The Mystery of the Blue Train”. The television series, ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” aired ”THE PLYMOUTH EXPRESS”, an adaptation of the novella, in 1991. And fourteen years later, the series aired its own version of ”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE”. Actor David Suchet portrayed Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in both productions.
The Blue Train referred to in this story was not the luxury train that traveled through Southern Africa. Known as Le Train Bleu or the Calais-Mediterranée Expres, this Blue Train was a luxury French night train that conveyed, wealthy and famous passengers between Calais and the French Riviera from 1922 until 1938, usually during the winter seasons. Unlike Christie’s novella, ”THE PLYMOUTH EXPRESS”, the case featured in ”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN”centered on the murder of an American heiress named Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, aboard the Blue Train. One of Ruth’s possessions ended up missing, namely a famous ruby called the Heart of Fire that was recently purchased by her father, American millionaire Rufus Van Aldin. The suspects accused of killing her and stealing the Heart of Fire were:
*Katherine Grey – a young Englishwoman who became wealthy through a recent inheritance; and whose father had been financially ruined by Van Aldin
*Derek Kettering – Ruth’s estranged and financially strapped husband, who came from an aristocratic family
*the Comte de la Roche – Ruth’s lover and a fake aristocrat who happened to be a con man and thief
*Ada Mason – Ruth’s maid, who disappeared during the Blue Train’s stop in Paris
* Mirelle Milesi – an exotic French courtesan, who was seen entering Ruth’s compartment aboard the train
*Major Richard Knighton –Van Aldin’s private secretary, who happens to be in love with Katherine
*Lady Tamplin – a financially strapped British aristocrat living on the Riviera with her daughter and young husband; and who is Katherine Grey’s distant cousin
*Lennox Tamplin – Lady Tamplin’s daughter
*’Corky’ Evans – Lady Tamplin’s young husband
*the Maquis – a famous jewel thief
Belgian-born detective, Hercule Poirot, found himself aboard the same train heading toward Nice for a winter vacation. The one passenger he managed to befriend was Katherine Grey, who had switched compartments with Ruth Kettering after meeting the latter. Overwrought by his daughter’s death, Van Aldin hired Poirot to find her killer.
I became a major fan of ”The Mystery of the Blue Train” not long after I first read the 1928 novel, years ago. The mystery struck me as slightly intriguing, the characters colorful and the atmosphere reeking with the glamour of the early 20th century rich in Europe. Imagine my delight when I first learned that a television adaptation of the novel had been made, starring David Suchet as Poirot. When I finally saw the movie, I found myself both disappointed . . . satisfied with it.
”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” could have truly been a first-class production. But some of the changes in the story stood in the way. One, Guy Andrews’ script got rid of the love triangle between Katherine Grey, Richard Knighton and Derek Kettering. Pity. I rather enjoyed it. Instead, Katherine only enjoyed a romance with Knighton. She barely shared any scenes with Derek, except for one in which she snapped at him for his childish behavior. And speaking of Derek Kettering, he became a petulant and hard drinking man who remained in love with the spoiled and estranged Ruth. He seemed quite different from the sardonic man in the novel, who had already fallen out of love with his wife long before the story began. Another change that proved to be a major one, involved the character of Mirelle. She remained a Frenchwoman, but one of African descent. And instead of being Derek’s soon-to-be former mistress and a dancer, this cinematic Mirelle turned out to be Rufus Van Aldin’s mistress. As for Lady Tamplin, she and her family also made the journey aboard the Blue Train – which did not happen in the novel. Any other changes? In this version, Katherine Grey revealed to Poirot that Van Aldin had financially ruined her father. Also, someone tried to kill her one hour into the movie.
What did I think of ”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN”? I did not mind some of the changes from the novel. For example, Lady Tamplin became a more likeable and sexy personality, thanks to Lindsay Duncan’s spirited performance. I found her young husband, Corky (Cubby Evans in the novel) less vacuous and self-absorbed. Mirelle’s personality acquired a welcome change from the character in the novel. Actress Josette Simon portrayed her as a world-weary, yet passionate woman with a great deal of complexities, instead of Christie’s one-dimensional portrait of sex and greed, wrapped in a French accent. I also enjoyed Nicholas Farrell’s quiet, yet charming portrayal of Rufus Van Aldin’s private secretary, Richard Knighton. Jaime Murray did a solid job in portraying Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, the murder victim, whose body was discovered aboard the Blue Train. I must admit that she managed to capture her character’s extroverted, ruthless and somewhat self-absorbed personality, even if her American accent seemed a bit questionable. And thank goodness for the presence of Elliot Gould, whose portrayal of Van Aldin transcended the cliché of the American businessman featured in the novel. Finally, David Suchet continued to give another fine performance as Hercule Poirot, everyone’s favorite Belgian detective – subtle, yet intense as always.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie featured the Blue Train’s departure from Calais during a heavy rainfall. Thanks to director Hettie Macdonald, production designers Jeff Tessler and an uncredited Paul Spriggs, along with cinematographer Alan Almond; this particular scene reeked with atmosphere and mystery. They also did an excellent job in capturing the sunny and exotic glamour of the French Riviera – especially in one scene that featured a house party given by Lady Tamplin at her home, Villa Marguerite. I also liked the fact that the story began in London, paused in Calais and ended in Nice. It did not shift to different locations throughout England and France, as in the novel. More importantly, Poirot revealed the murderer’s identity in front of all the suspects and the police; instead of limiting his audience to two characters.
What did I NOT like about “THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN”? Unfortunately, a good deal. One, I did not care for the change in Katherine Grey’s personality. I have no complaints about Georgina Rylance’s performance. She did a solid job in the role. But screenwriter Guy Andrews transformed the Katherine Grey character from a cool and smart woman that kept her emotions in check to a naïve woman that wore her emotions on her sleeve. It almost seemed to me that Katherine’s character had been somewhat diminished. Another change I did not care for was Andrews’ decision to make Mirelle the mistress of Van Aldin, instead of Derek Kettering. Nor did I care for his decision to reveal that Van Aldin’s wife was still alive, slightly mad and living in a convent in Nice. I found this plot twist to be very unnecessary. Speaking of Mr. Kettering, his personality went through a major change. In this adaptation, Derek became a drunken, gambling addict with a habit of sniveling over a wife who no longer loved him. Only James D’Arcy’s complex performance made it possible for me to tolerate the character. The movie’s portrayal of Lennox Tamplin seemed like a letdown from Christie’s novel. Instead of the sardonic young woman who had learned to tolerate her mother’s talent for exploitation and exhibition, this version of Lennox became a bubbly and extroverted personality (still capable of a few sharp remarks) with an atrocious hairstyle for a story set in the 1930s.
The biggest change occurred in the movie’s revelation scene. Although I had expressed approval of Andrews and director Hettie Macdonald’s decision to allow Poirot to reveal the murderer in Nice, I still had some problems with the scene. One, it began with the detective indulging in a ridiculous tirade about how each suspect could have been the murderer. But after Poirot identified the killer, viewers were treated to a ridiculous and theatrical scene in which the latter attempted to use a hostage to evade the police. I did not know whether to laugh or shake my head in disgust. I believe I ended up doing the latter.
“THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” will never be a favorite Christie adaptation of mine. There were too many changes that I did not care for – especially with some of the characters and the revelation scene. On the other hand, I found other changes – including the revelation scene – to be an improvement from the novel and a welcome relief. I also enjoyed the movie’s atmosphere, setting, photography and David Suchet’s performance as Poirot. It was not the best Christie adaptation, but I found it tolerable.