Commentary

Death on the Nile: Style eclipses Agatha Christie

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot wasn’t about to have any scene stealers in his own films

Death on the Nile: 'The killer is with us in this room' (Official poster)


20th Century Studios

Early in Kenneth Branagh’s new version of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, our hero, the great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, runs into a dear friend of his in the pyramids in Egypt. The friend tells him, “Of all the pyramids in all the towns in all the world, you walk into mine!”

That’s a clever quote, one of several immortal quips made by Humphrey Bogart in the classic movie Casablanca.  (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”)

The problem is the story of Death on the Nile is set in 1937. The script of Casablanca had yet to be completed even as filming was already underway, in 1942.

This anachronism is just among the many lapses in the script penned by Michael Green. His version of the Christie novel takes chronology for granted. He also does away with certain details of the plot that make the story so compelling. Both Green and director Branagh have tinkered with the surefire Christie formula. Their reason for doing this, I guess, is to cater to today’s audiences.

As with most Agatha Christie stories, a murder takes place in a confined venue. In Death on the Nile, it’s a river cruise boat that plies the River Nile. Many of the passengers, it turns out, have a motive. “The killer is with us in this room!” is the standard thing to say in these murder mysteries.

As he did with his version of Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh directs and again plays Poirot. While in Egypt, the world-famous sleuth is invited by the heiress Linnet Ridgeway Doyle (played by Gal Gadot) to go on a luxury cruise on the Nile. The cruise would serve as a venue to celebrate her marriage to Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). Other guests include her socialite godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), and a host of other friends played by Annette Bening, Russell Brand, and Tom Bateman, among others.

No party is complete without a gatecrasher. In this case, it’s Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). She was engaged to be married to the penniless Simon Doyle, but she made the mistake of introducing him to her wealthy best friend Linnet. The scorned Jacqueline is reduced to stalking her ex-fiancé and ex-best friend.

We have several scenes of Gadot and Hammer looking beautiful and sexy in the CGI setting—yet the pyramids, the Nile, and the boat look fake

Indeed, somebody’s bound to get killed, but it takes too long for it to happen. Branagh had to focus on his two A-list stars as much as he could, so we have several scenes of Gadot and Hammer looking beautiful and sexy in the CGI setting. It’s visually stunning, yet the pyramids, the Nile, and the boat look fake. The movie takes us on a tour of a make-believe Egypt. It’s strange that in this day and age, they didn’t shoot in actual locations, when the 1978 version starring Peter Ustinov did. Ditto with the TV version with David Suchet.

The overly long lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous segment comes at the cost of the other actors playing the other guests. The secondary characters are underwritten. Nothing that they’re made to say is funny or provocative. They’re not even given enough time for nuances that could have revealed more about the characters they play. Thus, when it’s time to question them in the aftermath of the murder, the sudden unveiling of hidden skeletons comes across as forced. The main story also suffers because at some point, you’ll forget you’re watching a murder mystery. Arty camera work also lessens the impact of the denouement.

One revision that works is the character Salome Ottorbourne. As written in the book, she’s a flamboyant author of erotic novels. In this iteration, she’s a jazz singer a la Josephine Baker, and she’s played by Sophie Okenedo. The character was reinvented for the sake of diversity, but as played by Okenedo, she makes a memorable suspect.  As with the CGI, however, the overuse of jazz music dilutes the exotic character of the location. It’s as if they’re sailing the Mississippi River, not the Nile.

The Christie film adaptations of yore were atmospheric. They created an eerie setting that reeked of danger hidden under glamorous trappings. The boat in the 1978 version was spiced with larger-than-life murder suspects. The wit in the dialogue was as sharp as the knife that was used to slit the throat of a victim. And with Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury playing them with relish, the suspects stole the thunder from Poirot.

Perhaps Branagh wasn’t about to have any scene stealers in his own films. Poirot shouldn’t be upstaged, and Branagh does prevent that from happening. He even inserts an origin story at the start of the film, if only to explain why the detective wears that mustache. Actually, Branagh’s mustache is garish, and it does necessitate an explanation. His Poirot is darker and brooding. The humor that made this eccentric sleuth so engaging is done away with. Branagh should have just made a separate origin movie for Poirot, instead of shoving it into Death on the Nile.

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About author

Articles

He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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