Review by James Mahon
Kenneth Branagh is back as Agatha Christies’ brilliant Belgian (not French) detective Hercules Poirot in Death on the Nile (Kenneth Branagh 2022), after the relative success of his recreation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh 2017). With Branagh remaining in the director’s seat and Michael Green once again writing the screenplay, the setting and story may be different but much of the core ingredients are the same. Nevertheless, one unique challenge in approaching any depiction of Christie’s novels on screen is the realisation that the majority of the audience may already know the method used, and identity of the murder – not an ideal situation for a whodunnit film. Added to this, are competing film reconstructions of the murder mystery. Going as far back as John Guillermin’s version in 1978 with the bombastically charismatic Peter Ustinov as Poirot, or even the television adaptation in 2004, with a wonderfully accurate representation of Poirot offered by David Suchet. Unfortunately, Branagh fails to overcome both these hurdles, in what is a mediocre adaptation, that is saved by its last forty minutes from being stultifying insipid.
The plot itself is of course a typically wonderful Christie concoction. Onboard the boat steamer Karnak on the river Nile in Egypt, Poirot is tasked with untangling a complex love triangle. Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), a wealthy American socialite has recently married Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), her best friend Jacqueline de Belleforts’ (Emma Mackay) former fiancé, who now stalks the newly wedded couple at every opportunity. Alas before Poirot can take any substantive action, Linnet is killed in her sleep. And so, Poirot’s task of solving the intricate conundrum begins, avoiding various red herrings along the way.
Branagh’s aesthetic approach as director causes problems for the film. His intention is obvious – the initial phase of the movie is imbued with bright, vibrant lyrical colours designed to give off a sense of hallucinatory unreality. Once the murder has been discovered, the colour pallet is far more sombre and neutral, overwhelmingly darker and greyer. Such an overt cinematic technique seems peculiarly unoriginal from an experienced director as Branagh. The amount of explicit foreshadowing is simply ostentatious. This is not to mention instances of a crocodile leaping up to devour a seagull, a snake attempting to strike Linnet, or a champagne bottle opening like the sound of a bullet.
Stemming from the same unoriginality, are clunky backstories wedged into the screenplay by Green to provide some character motivation. The worst of these is that of Poirot himself, whose lost love interest we briefly see in black and white flashbacks. Branagh’s Poirot is subsequently portrayed as a consistently emotively expressive individual, attached to the case not really because he is a detective, but rather as someone who understands the power of true love. This is a striking difference to the clinically detached, logical and deliberately asexual Poirot of Christie’s novels and Suchet’s television series. Another unwanted distortion of the original story is the replacement of the affable mediocrity of Captain Hastings with the character of Bouc (Tom Bateman) previously seen in Murder on the Orient Express. Why Hastings, who’s innate chemistry as a character with Poirot functions as that of Watson to Holmes, has been axed is a mystery in and of itself. Safe to say Bouc is no replacement.
The select few redeeming factors are the delightfully extravagant costume design by Abi Groves and Amanda Willgrave, displaying a kaleidoscopic range of colour tones. Whilst most of the cast struggle to have any real effect, Emma Mackey as Jacqueline de Bellfort and Jennifer Saunders as Marie Van Schuyler provided some much needed on screen dynamism. Ultimately though, it is the intensity of Christie’s story creation, independent from anything else, that despite the first half of the film, make the latter half compelling.