DEATH ON THE NILE (2022)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
“A person in love would do anything” opines Poirot. In the second case under director/star Kenneth Branagh, after seemingly no time at all, Linnet and Simon decide to ditch their current partner, and best friend: Jackie. Only Jilted Jackie starts showing up – floating around like the ghost at the feast when people least want her. Including their honeymoon celebration on the titular river where the couple vacations with a host of guests including Linnet’s lawyer, her ex-fiancé, her personal maid, her godmother and the band who played when they got together. One more couldn’t hurt: enter world-famous detective Hercule Poirot, whose old friend Bouc invites him on board. As is customary when he’s around, everyone makes thinly veiled threats to each other, playing to the audience’s understanding of dramatic irony and, eventually, someone gets offed (maybe he’s a jinx). No, it makes no sense that the killer doesn’t put things on hold while a super sleuth is around – this has happened too many times to be weird. After all, Agatha Christie gave him 33 novels, two plays, and over 50 short stories.
As a fan of the books, my biggest bugbear with Branagh’s Poirot is his dedication to playing Poirot as a more generic protagonist than is on the page. Yeah, there’s the signature arrogance and a decent attempt at an accent. But he’s slimmed him down considerably, ditched many of his eccentricities and all but corrected his limp. Poirot is typically blasé in the face of death, callously immersing himself in the intellectual challenge of solving it – whereas here he’s moodier, and even brooding at points. He’s also no longer asexual, flirting with abandon and talking about lost loves. He’s not the only one: the whole film is needlessly erotic, with lots of out of place innuendos. Plus there’s Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer (as Linnet and Simon) all but having sex on the dance floor and against a rock. And fair enough, it’s its own thing so fidelity to the source material doesn’t really matter. But Branagh further distances himself from The Dame by, once again, making this a film about the detective rather than the crime. Heck, even his moustache gets a backing story – in an excessive prologue that leads to an unintentionally hilarious last line.
During Orient Express I wondered if the choice to focus on Poirot over proceedings was because it was the first – it’s also got a sizeable cast, limited time and a final choice that requires us to understand our lead. But this time around, with the story necessitating fewer suspects and more nuance to their relationships, it suggests he’s simply not interested in adapting Agatha. Consequently, the puzzle is as deep as the computer-generated water, and I’d be surprised if most of the audience doesn’t solve it before he does – defeating the point a bit. You want to get part of it or kick yourself because you know you should have. But any satisfaction derived from figuring out the whole thing is usually a mark of weak storytelling rather than the viewer being brilliant. And for those of us who know how it’s done, the fun is all the subtleties you may have missed the first time – there aren’t many of these. Heck for me the most engaging part was seeing if my wife would solve it – which she did with lots of time to spare. As with how a good magician can make you think you have it all figured out, before delivering their prestige, a good mystery is meant to bamboozle then make you say ‘of course!’. It’s a shame this one doesn’t, as it’s a decent explanation and the novel has some characteristically excellent misdirection throughout.
A lot of the cast are done a disservice too. Most notably, Russell Brand is wasted in a role that doesn’t play to his strengths as an actor at all. He’s believable, which makes a change from his usual shtick. Though with his cocky swagger neutered he simply isn’t particularly likeable or interesting. Gal Gadot’s part is all glitz, glam and style – sure, she has a striking entrance but we barely get to know her as a person. Seemingly, nor does Armie Hammer. In isolation, both are ok – though Simon and Linnet have almost no physical or emotional chemistry. For a series that’s trying to go for a more sombre tone, it stretches any credibility that he’d leave a partner for her and that she’d ditch a bestie for him. The surprise highlights are probably French and Saunders as a Marxist upper-cruster, and her travelling nurse. Though Sophie Okonedo, as a blues singer, has some decent barbs and much-needed charisma. The lack of with most of them means that the game element of the interrogation scenes is muted and when the first body shows up halfway through the film it’s less a whodunit than who even cares?
The Karnak itself is well-realised. There’s some good attention to detail: scrubbed floorboards and beautiful crisp sheets – who wouldn’t want to stay there? With some flashy long shots, we soon get to know its layout, making it feel like a coherent place and not just set. This sort of immersion is essential since much of the mystery comes from figuring out who is where at any one time. Yet almost all of the backdrops are made up of laughable CGI and TV quality green screen, giving it a lifeless, artificial quality – one wonders why a film of this budget looks so flimsy. I know all this sounds really negative, and it isn’t a total dud. After all, there’s only so bad this movie can be. If nothing else you have an intriguing story with a star cast in a memorable setting. But there are multiple better-done telling of this already out there – whether you want to watch to read it. I like the novel best, but the Suchet version is ace too. Frankly, if this series continues I really hope Branagh starts to play to what makes these books so timeless, and why people keep going back to it. Apparently, the next one will be set in Venice, where none of the tales has taken place, so I’m not holding my breath.