In some ways, Death on the Nile feels like a film that came out years ago.
Originally slated to arrive ‘P-C’, ‘Pre-Covid’, in December 2019, a slew of delays followed as the pandemic rocked the cinematic world and further pushed back Kenneth Branagh’s follow up adventure as the self-styled ‘world’s greatest detective’ Hercule Poirot, after his successful and largely critically praised debut in Murder on the Orient Express, until finally it has arrived—perhaps more appropriately—on Valentine’s weekend some two and half years, almost, late.
The project since then has been lurking in the press for all of the wrong reasons, be it Gal Gadot’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Armie Hammer’s blacklisting thanks to some troubling sexual peccadilloes, or Letitia Wright spouting full blown anti-vaccination nonsense (which she denies). Some even wondered if the film would ever see the cinematic light of day or end up sent to the streaming doldrums of Disney+ as some kind of ‘premier exclusive’. Perhaps wisely, perhaps not, that didn’t happen.
Branagh’s film is undeniably a cinematic experience but that, nor the delay, prevent the finished product being a frustrating disappointment.
Anyone who knows Agatha Christie will be conversant in the story here, and everyone else will roughly know what to expect.
Poirot, the detecting genius, using his ‘little grey cells’ to root out a tenacious killer. Some might recall the previous two adapted versions of the story – in 2004, as part of the canonical completed works with David Suchet in the role for ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot, and further back John Guillermin’s star-studded 1978 version with Peter Ustinov taking the signature role. Yet Branagh seeks here to make a film that defies those previous conventions.
His previous outing, a logical starting point as arguably Christie’s most famous novel, presented us with a Poirot who would exist less as a detached outsider and a man more connected to his victims and suspects. Death on the Nile makes that a core function of the plot. Branagh begins with an ‘origin story’ for his detecting superhero, in the trenches of World War One, where he establishes a romantic theme that he will spend two hours bludgeoning us with. In short – love. Love is beautiful. Love is dangerous. Love is all encompassing. And Poirot is reinvented as a somewhat tortured romantic lead with a tragic past. Even his famous moustache gets a backstory.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach and, logically, it makes sense for Branagh and fellow screenwriter Michael Green to work on Poirot as a rounded, indeed at points red-blooded figure, especially given the seductive surroundings. A long way from the chilly Siberian air of Murder on the Orient Express, with a cold, calculating plot to mirror the geography, Death on the Nile is sultry and smoky even before Branagh gets us to the titular river. He shoots a London jazz club, circa 1937, as Sophie Okonedo’s blues singer heats up the room, with sexual intensity; his camera lingers lasciviously on Hammer & Emma Mackey’s dancing that will make you reconsider having taken your Mum to see this one.
If anything, that’s the biggest surprise takeaway of Death on the Nile – just how sexy it is. Mackey, fresh off her breakout role in Sex Education, and likely replacing Jodie Comer who was originally lined up for the film, crackles with sexual vengeance as the wronged Jacqueline de Balfour. Gadot does the usual Gadot thing – struts around like a fashion model as everyone falls madly in love with her instantly (or so it seems… strokes chin), and Hammer—non persona gratis he might be now as opposed to when the film was shot—lets his inhibitions fly. Branagh’s camera is closer, intimate in a deeper way than anything in the previous film. He wants us to feel the heat.
The problem is that said heat, said sex and passion, swiftly turns Christie’s story into rather plodding melodrama. You won’t be surprised in who the victim turns out to be; you might find unexpected the fact it takes Branagh an hour to get there. This is even without several of the ensemble having anything of note to do – Russell Brand is wallpaper, Jennifer Saunders restrained in an American heiress role better played by Bette Davis 45 years ago (indeed why pair up French & Saunders, one of Britain’s finest comic duo’s, and not let them be funny?), and Annette Bening strangling a plum British accent in one of several roles it is hard to understand the casting choices around. Rose Leslie as a French maid? I mean… were all the French actors unavailable?
These kind of incongruities can be forgiven. Films such as this, and Death on the Nile is old-fashioned in many ways, have always been riddled with strange casting choices, odd accents and uncharacteristic turns. Branagh’s film, however, only half wants to be a murder mystery and Poirot spends far too long becoming embroiled in the lives of these people as opposed to investigating the heinous crimes. As he says “I have investigated many crimes, but this has altered the shape of my soul”. Did it need to? Is there something to be said for the joy of watching a brilliant mind like Poirot figuring out a complex web and unfurling it, as we attempt to keep up?
A recent, much stronger, example of this is Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, very much indebted to the Christie-style ensemble assortment of possible killers all with secrets threatening to spill out. That film made you complicit in Benoit Blanc’s attempts to solve the puzzle and one hopes the coming, Netflix-hosted sequel (which does have a whiff of Death on the Nile by the look of it) will refrain from drawing Blanc too heavily in on a personal level in the way Poirot is embroiled here. The mystery in this story is surface level, the investigation swift, and the action contrived. Death on the Nile never makes you work for it, too interested instead as it is in stirring your loins as opposed to your deductive skills.
The book is, almost certainly, better. The previous adaptations too perhaps convey a story with passion and tragedy, almost Shakespearian tragedy indeed, with a more even tone. This take on Death on the Nile didn’t stoke my ardour, unfortunately. It just made me wish for the cerebral.