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Murder on the Orient Express
  • Composed by Patrick Doyle
  • Sony Classical / 2017 / 57m

I realise it may be controversial to say this, but I think that Hercule Poirot is one of the greatest moustachioed Belgian characters introduced in all of British literature of the 1920s – certainly in the top twenty.  His most famous role came in Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie’s eighth full-length novel featuring the character (he had also appeared in short stories and a play by that point).  It was previously adapted for film in 1974 by Sidney Lumet, with Albert Finney taking the lead role; much-beloved, inevitably questions were asked about whether Kenneth Branagh’s new take on the story was strictly necessary, which has led to a rather lukewarm response upon the film’s release.

After an exhaustive casting process, Branagh gave the role of Poirot to himself, with the excellent supporting cast including Johnny Depp, Judi Dench and Michelle Pfeiffer.  There was no doubt as to who would score the film – the director’s collaboration with Patrick Doyle goes back to 1989 and includes virtually all of his films.  Several of the composer’s finest scores from Branagh’s films and Murder on the Orient Express is excellent – following in the footsteps of Richard Rodney Bennett means Doyle probably won’t get the credit he deserves, but it really is a wonderful score.

Patrick Doyle

It opens with a fun little piece, “The Wailing Wall”, various ethnic sounds joining the orchestra (the film starts in Jerusalem) – it sounds like western film composers’ versions of Middle Eastern bazaars always sound – and it’s great.  “Jaffa to Stamboul” is a really lovely piece with a charming melody heard initially for solo duduk over soaring strings; “Arrival” turns the tables a bit, with choppy strings providing real urgency, rhythmic accompaniment from percussion seeing the pace growing; then “The Orient Express” offers a full-on romantic musical portrait of classical train travel, full of buzz and energy and beauty, with a wonderful theme introduced (barely heard again, sadly).  This section is then brought to a close with the soaring,  buzzing “Departure” reprising the theme of the second and third cues.

All of that makes for an exhilaratingly good opening to the album, but of course things take a darker turn – as murder-mysteries tend to do.  Sure enough, in “Judgement” a new theme is introduced, with a sinister edge to it, the colour of the duduk being used cleverly to add the unmistakable sound of mystery.  The plot thickens in “Touch Nothing Else”, a piece which some may find a bit dull (not a great deal happens, I have to admit) but which I think is compelling, and taken in context really adds to the richness of the experience.  “MacQueen” reprises the sinister theme before the wonderful “12 Stab Wounds” is a wonderful piece of colourful suspense writing, some cimbalom and synth keyboard textures leaving an impression but really it’s the haunting strings that do the job.

Then, the score changes again – “The Armstrong Case” introduces a major new, quite wonderful theme.  Heard in this initial guise for solo piano and violin, it’s a stunning melody – perhaps a bit of a Broadway tinge to it (which may seem an odd thing to say, but hopefully you’ll know what I mean when you hear it).  “Mrs Hubbard” has spent the movie hiding in a cupboard until her cue appears, and when it does it’s another fine piece of suspense writing – Doyle really is approaching these moments the way film composers used to, unafraid to be colourful and up-front, entirely in keeping with the tone of Branagh’s film.  A similar thing holds true in “This is True”, with some very dynamic feelings being expressed (the score taking on a more modern feel, all of a sudden), which continues into the action track “Keep Everyone Inside” – the low-end piano and stylish string runs with plenty of reverb will remind Doyle fans of past triumphs (in the best possible way).

After this, we come to the emotional “Confession”, in which you could slice the tension with a knife; then after a brief period of calm in “Geography”, the suspense returns in “One Sharp Knife” but then comes something really special, the ravishing “Ma Katherine”, featuring a distant, wordless female vocal – it’s such a beautiful piece.  “True Identity” is a slow-burning piece of drama, then comes another brief moment of action at the end of “Dr Arbuthnot”, the orchestra exploding into a furious frenzy.

A beautiful reprise of the Armstrong theme follows in “It Is Time” before the absolute highlight of the score, the stunning “Justice”.  Those familiar with the story will know why the piece is as it is (I won’t spoil it) – and what it is is an emotional release of the highest order, the Armstrong theme sent through a series of variations (my favourite being for solo piano, played by the composer) as Poirot sums up the case.  As the strings come together in tragic, elegiac chorus, the emotional torrent reminds me a little of “In Pace” from the composer’s Hamlet – and in my opinion that’s the single finest piece of music he’s ever written.

If you get through the wringer of that stunning piece, you need a bit of a post-coital cigarette, which arrives in musical form from the three remaining cues (each of which is itself exceptional).  First comes a gentle piano jazz arrangement of Poirot’s theme in “Poirot” – warm and delightful; perhaps even better is the song “Never Forget”, sung beautifully by Michelle Pfeiffer – it’s a vocal arrangement of the Armstrong theme, making it sound even more Broadway.  Finally, a reprise of “The Orient Express” comes in the bustling, delightful “Orient Express Suite” – it’s only three minutes long but it’s a great way to bring things to a close.

I’ve always been drawn towards film music that offers a rich, dramatic musical narrative and that’s what this score does.  From the buzz and excitement of the opening, through the suspenseful and sometimes mysterious middle section to the grand catharsis, Patrick Doyle goes full steam ahead – never getting near to going off the rails of his carefully-plotted course.  Best of all, it’s supremely elegant throughout – the thematic material is exquisite, the emotional highs and lows all richly earned.  One of the scores of the year without question.

**** 1/2
Colourful, emotional musical storytelling | |

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  1. dominique (Reply) on Sunday 3 December, 2017 at 00:15

    thanks for this wonderful review, james and you right, this is one of the year´s best!

  2. ANASTASIOS 99 (Reply) on Thursday 28 April, 2022 at 16:05

    My music score for Murder in the orient Express. I admire Patrick Doyle. I love him composer, but i write with my own mind. Music for me is dream and relax. Thank’s.