DEATH ON THE NILE (2022)
Hercule Poirot solves a series of murders on an upper-class Nile cruise.
Agatha Christie is impossible to film with a straight face nowadays. Decades of mean-streets crime movies (that least feel more true-to-life even if they’re just as fanciful) have made it difficult to take her genteel detectives and upper-class murderous milieu entirely seriously. Kenneth Branagh, however, is certainly not filming Christie to mock her…
While Murder on the Orient Express (2017) presented Hercule Poirot as too much of a conventional hero, and as a result made him rather uninteresting, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (who also wrote Orient Express) get the balance just right for Death on the Nile. There’s clear affection and respect for Christie’s characters as well as an awareness of the whole thing’s absurdity, as almost ever character is played for laughs at some point, but nobody is played purely for laughs.
Death on the Nile has been filmed once before, by John Guillermin in 1978, from an Anthony Shaffer screenplay, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and an all-star cast bumping each other off. I remember it being a fun film when I was 11, though perhaps I was too young to be discerning enough. In any case, the relevance of the Guillermin/Shaffer version to the Branagh/Green is that, in some ways, this latest movie is more a remake than a fresh adaptation of the 1930s novel. The ’78 film departed in several respects from Christie’s plot, and the ’22 one preserves most of the changes that Shaffer made.
It also adds a few of its own; most notably a World War I backstory for Poirot—which isn’t to be found anywhere in Christie’s work, as she described Poirot as spending the war in England rather than on the Western Front. There are also significant changes to two characters: Salome Otterbourne, a detective novelist in the book and ’78 film, has become a jazz singer here, while the Communist Jim Ferguson has become a woman.
Branagh starts, in fact, with one of these additions—a section set in the trenches of Belgium in 1914, shot almost monochrome. Its narrative purpose is to establish Poirot as a genius who sees details that others overlook, and to introduce love as a theme for the film (a cause for regret, a motive for murder…), but this prologue is also well-done in its own right, and indeed Branagh’s direction is confident throughout.
After a slightly over-long interlude in 1937 London, we then move to Egypt in the same year, as indicated by Poirot admiring the Sphinx while succoured by tea, Jaffa cake, boiled eggs, and Baedeker guide. The setting may be Asia but the story will still be thoroughly European. Though Branagh makes much use of physical locations—for example, with effective overhead and underwater shots—actual Egyptians are virtually absent from the film.
North Africa is, of course, in Christie’s book, merely a picturesque backdrop for what’s essentially another country-house murder-mystery. Most of it here is likely VFX anyway, but it’s sufficiently convincing given this is far from a realistic movie, as is the interior design of the ship where a dozen others soon join Poirot on a Nile cruise.
Among them are young couple Simon (Armie Hammer) and Linnet (Gal Gadot) on their honeymoon; the scorned Jackie (Emma Mackey), Simon’s former inamorata; Poirot’s old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his mother Euphemia (Annette Bening); Linnet’s maid Louise (Rose Leslie); and Linus, a doctor and former lover of Linnet (Russell Brand). Also aboard are Andrew (Ali Fazal), Linnet’s lawyer and business manager, so obviously guilty of something you know he can’t be the murderer; Salome the jazz singer (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright); and a couple of older ladies, Marie (Jennifer Saunders) and Mrs Bowers (Dawn French), whose sharing of a bed is discreet but scarcely seems to surprise anyone in 1937, let alone 2022.
Before long the corpses start to pile up, and Poirot interviews the survivors one by one before revealing the solution. This isn’t really supposed to be guessable by the audience—the point is that we should be marvelling at Poirot’s brilliance, rather than trying to emulate it–though there’s amusement to be had in making the attempt.
More, though, comes from the characters. Poirot is pre-eminent among them, and is more rounded than he was in Orient Express, which always seemed tempted to big him up into a kind of hero, and reluctant to dwell on his fussy, nerdish aspects. Here he’s both idiosyncratic (not least with his extraordinary double-moustache, also explained during the WWI flashback) and genuinely sympathetic. Curiously, he seems slightly younger than in Orient Express, though that story is set slightly earlier, but no matter. Branagh has fun with his Belgian accent, but not too much.
The others are generally less well-developed as people, notably Bouc (also in Orient Express), who seems vapid to the point of tedium. But even if no individual stands out to the extent of the thoroughly unsavoury Johnny Depp in Branagh’s 2017 film, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Saunders’s Marie, the wealthy communist, has some great lines and Bening’s Euphemia has incredible presence.
The standouts, however, are Okonedo as the singer Salome—aided by terrific Sister Rosetta Tharpe songs on the soundtrack—and, even more, Wright (Black Panther) as her niece, a young woman who knows what she wants and says what she thinks. The effort to update the very white Christie with diversity is transparent, but it works more than well enough in the context, so why not…
Quite a few of Branagh’s Orient Express team signed up again for Death on the Nile (not the least of them composer Patrick Doyle, who contributes a decent score here), and it wouldn’t be surprising to see this nascent Christie repertory company producing a third film.
An obvious contender might be And Then There Were None (filmed numerous times though René Clair’s 1945 version remains the one to beat, and Branagh is certainly conceivable in the Barry Fitzgerald role). However, that’s not a Poirot novel, so perhaps The Murder of Roger Ackroyd—earlier in Christie’s career, highly regarded, and hardly ever filmed—might finally have its turn.
In the meantime, while Death on the Nile is unlikely to make much of an impact on anyone’s end-of-year film lists, it’s a likeable, well-acted, well-written movie which improves quite a bit on its predecessor.
UK • USA | 2022 | 127 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Kenneth Branagh.
writers: Michael Green (based on the novel by Agatha Christie).
starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders & Letitia Wright.