Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
United Kingdom/USA, 2022. 20th Century Studios, Kinberg Genre, Scott Free Productions, TSG Entertainment, The Estate of Agatha Christie, The Mark Gordon Company. Screenplay by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie. Cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos. Produced by Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund, Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh. Music by Patrick Doyle. Production Design by Jim Clay. Costume Design by Paco Delgado. Film Editing by Úna Ní Dhonghaíle.
As promised in the conclusion to his 2017 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express, the unquestionably brilliant Hercule Poirot, played once again under a ten-pound moustache by director Kenneth Branagh, has returned to solve a crime committed on Egypt’s majestic river (much as the 1978 Oscar-winning John Guillermin adaptation of Death On The Nile followed behind Sidney Lumet’s version of Orient Express). Similar to Branagh’s previous take on the great mystery’s writer work, this film is also a beautifully designed but sluggish voyage that overcomplicates matters from the get-go, first with an unnecessary prologue that explores Poirot’s experiences on the battlefield in World War I, followed by an extended prelude that has the ace Belgian sleuth, before he even goes anywhere near Egypt, encounter key figures who will loom large in the tale that follow: while enjoying a performance at a swanky nightclub by world-famous jazz artist Salome Otterbourne (the film’s best performance, Sophie Okonedo, her character replacing the gin-soaked romance novelist based on Elinor Glyn in the original book), Poirot observes as Jacqueline (Emma Mackey, who is excellent) introduces her sexy but penniless fiancé Simon (Armie Hammer in unflattering moustache) to her old school chum, wealthy heiress Linnet (Gal Gadot).
Six weeks later we catch up with Poirot in Egypt, where he runs into his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), who introduces Poirot to his acerbic mother Euphemia (Annette Bening) and they invite him to dinner with their traveling party. The group, it turns out, is accompanying newlyweds Linnet and Simon on their honeymoon, among them Salome, her business manager and niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright), Linnet’s former fiancé and doctor Linus Windlesham (a wholly ineffective Russell Brand), her cousin and lawyer Andrew (Ali Fazal), her godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), Marie’s nurse and companion Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French) and Linnet’s maid Louise (Rose Leslie). Their days taking in the ancient sights and nights at elegant tables are soured by the persistent appearance of Jacqueline, who believes that Simon still loves her and is furious that Linnet stole him away, determined to follow them wherever they go and never give them a moment of peace.
Poirot knows that Jacqueline has a gun and warns the couple to cut their trip short and go home, but they decide to keep the party going by hiring a boat and cruising down the Nile instead; Jacqueline finds her way onto the vessel, though, and it isn’t long before there’s a dead body in a bed and a lot of very convenient alibis surrounding it. One by one Poirot questions the passengers on the ship, discovering that all of them, in classic Christie fashion, had bones to pick with the deceased and could all be attributed with a motive for the murder, his job becoming more difficult when more deaths occur and the passengers increase their panic of being next.
No adaptation of a Christie novel can make its way to the screen without some alterations, her problematic empire-building characterizations of non-British characters are downright frightful when examined today and, once again under the supervision of her estate, the changes made to satisfy this requirement never alter the main plot while allowing the presence of a racially diverse cast and a little homosexuality into the proceedings (this is nothing particularly extraordinary, as period pieces, no matter what anyone says, always reflect the time period in which they are made more than they do the one they portraying). Where Branagh falters, though, is in once again making the mistake of thinking that the characters and their situations require deep psychological and emotional investigation, particularly in thinking that by giving Poirot the depth that comes with emotional vulnerability and self-doubt it will make him more powerful to the viewer.
All it really does is give Branagh a chance to concentrate on his own performance, which is given so much close-up screen time that a remarkable cast (ranging from the powerhouse of Bening to the delight of teaming French and Saunders up in a feature film) are relegated to little more than cameos. Maybe Christie would have had something politically incorrect to stay about the modern-day blasé attitude towards mixed-race couples, but it seems more likely she’d be genuinely angry about her stiff-upper-lipped characters being turned into melodramatic figures of tragedy. The mathematical precision of her assemblage of clues and coincidences, all given shocking credibility by her masterful command of narrative, are enough to thrill the viewer without the need to add memories of battlefield trauma, the sorrows of losing dear friends and the fear of taking new chances on love.
The film definitely looks beautiful, though because digital effects are a necessary evil (there’s no way to make the tourist trap hell of today’s Egypt look like it did in 1937, when only the very wealthy could travel there in style), they are used in excessive abundance and produce a shallow effect that is sometimes distracting. It’s about as hit and miss as Branagh’s last go-around with Christie’s world, certainly better than Julian Fellowes’ dismal attempt at Crooked House, and will hopefully lead to more cinematic renderings of the Queen of Mystery’s works on the big screen, but hopefully taken in a new direction.