The star-studded adaptation of Christie’s 1937 novel feels like a gritty murder mystery
The adaptation of Agatha Christie by Kenneth Branagh Death on the Nile begins with a flashback to the trenches of World War I before moving to London in the 1930s two decades later, but that’s nothing compared to the time that has passed since Branagh’s previous whodunit in 2017 Murder on the Orient Express.
This film, which packed a bevy of stars aboard an opulent locomotive, was a flabby artifice that lacked the warm fizziness of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version, starring Albert Finney. Corn Murder in the East offered a welcome reminder of two enduring cinematic maxims: train movies are irresistible and thrillers are, generally speaking, a hoot. It was an unexpected box office hit, and a sequel, with Branagh again directing and returning as mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, was quickly commissioned with visions of something like a Christie verse.
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But the pandemic, which partly explains two-year release delays, isn’t the only one that has delayed Death on the Nile. One of its stars, Armie Hammer, plunged into scandal, and the studio reportedly considered remaking the film with another actor. Even the studio disappeared when 20th Century Fox was acquired by the Walt Disney Co.
Yet the greatest change from the sea to the swamp Death on the Nile maybe something else: that of Rian Johnson Knives out kind of blew the water. Johnson’s 2019 mystery wasn’t based on a Christie novel, but it was lovingly styled after a novel and giddily brought the genre into contemporary times. Here, with Daniel Craig in the role of Benoit Blanc, the Poirot-style investigator, it was the thrilling revival of thrillers. (A Mediterranean sequel is slated for release later this year.)
So Death on the Nile, with Hammer in tow, is currently playing in theaters in the United Arab Emirates. A brilliant, star-studded adaptation of Christie’s 1937 novel, scripted by Michael Green, is a better movie than Murder on the Orient Express but still feels like a gritty murder mystery too insecure to simply let its talkative characters and spiraling storylines unfold. Instead of, Death on the Nilestuck somewhere between the past and the present, unsuccessfully tries to spruce up an old-school film style with buckets of CGI and a jittery camera that keeps spinning in circles.
It begins with a flashback to Poirot as a soldier at war, where his cunning reading of the winds leads to a promising offensive, as well as a battle injury that ultimately prompts Poirot to choose his facial hair. We know where the Joker got his uneasiness and Superman his powers from; now we can finally explain the origin of Poirot’s mustache.
And certainly, Branagh’s portrayal of Christie’s seminal detective leans into the iconic. His Poirot is particularly smiling, accomplice and twirling his mustache. For much of the film at the start, we see him in close-up and in ominous silhouette just watching – particularly at a London blues club where Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) performs and a love triangle may form. -be on the dance floor. There the passionate lovers Simon Doyle (Hammer) and Jacqueline (Emma Mackey) writhe. She stops by to introduce her fiancé to wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and enlists him for a job for Doyle.
When Poirot shows up months later at the Pyramids of Egypt, Doyle and Linnet are married and on their honeymoon. The desert scene is computer generated and kinda ridiculous. An old acquaintance, Linus Windlesham (a pretty Russell Brand dupe), doctor and former fiancé of Linnet, flies a kite halfway up one of the pyramids. Linnet is briefly seen in the Cleopatra costume, as an upcoming mini-attraction for an in-development film dragged down by its own controversy.
All of them, including a neglected and jealous Jacqueline, board the Karnak, a beautiful river steamer. For Death on the Nile, it is a refined setting for the main action of the film. Just about everyone on the ship has a connection to the newlyweds. Persons of interest include painter Euphemia (Annette Bening), Linnet’s lawyer Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), Otterbourne and his niece (Letitia Wright), Linnet’s godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her companion (Dawn French).
As they float down the river, Death on the Nile takes a while to set up the various characters, tease possible motives, and send its cameras spinning around Karnak in pointless frills. But once there’s a fresh body and a crime to unravel, Death on the Nile settles down. Poirot gets to work, the clues pile up, and the ruse of Christie’s story sets in. One of the benefits of murder mystery is how it can isolate each actor in an ensemble and give them a chance to thrive. Here, that’s especially true for Okonedo, whose singer adds a bit of seriousness to the proceedings.
But by the time the film finally finds a faster current, Branagh’s film has only brightened memories of the 1978 version, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and real Egyptian locations. As it is, this Death on the Nilefor too long affected, tense entertainment devoid of any sense of place floats far below more invigoratingly constructed thrillers.
Death on the Nile is currently playing in theaters in the UAE.