- Movie Rating -

Death on the Nile (2022)

| February 2, 2022

I confess that I am not exactly a fan of Agatha Christie.  In my life I have only read two of her books; one for a book report in high school (Murder on the Orient Express), and the other (Ten Little Indians) at the insistence of a friend.  For me, her books are form and function – the locations are the form and the characters simply function.  They are types, not people, acted upon but rarely living apart from the central mystery that is afoot.  Her characters seem to have pieces of lives, but seemingly have no narrative of a life being led.  That is probably what keeps her books light and quick.  We get a little background; the characters are on the board and the game has begun. 

I never read “Death on the Nile” nor have I seen the 1978 version with Peter Ustinov in the role of Hercule Poirot.  Therefore, Kenneth Branagh’s version is my entire introduction and, hey, I kinda liked it.  His film has the bold narrative that you might read but it also seems to have an emotional weight that you might not expect.  One element here is giving a lot of time to Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played for the second time by Branagh after his 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express).  Michael Green, who adapted Branagh’s Orient Express, offers up a new opening that is so striking that you almost wish it had been the entire movie.  In a prologue, we meet young Poirot (a de-aged Branagh) is in the trenches of World War I as he uses his trademark skill at deduction to figure out a way to save his battalion from certain death.  It is a brilliant scene, not only because it offers him a romantic attachment but also informs us why he wears his trademark mustache.

You can see the weight of that earlier scene on Poirot’s face all through the movie.  He had failed to save someone that day and it hit him hard when he fails again later.  That’s a new approach.  Normally, Poirot is detached, but here he allows himself to get caught up in the emotion of the moment.

The moment, it should be said, is pure Christie.  Branagh, as director, spares no expense in giving us the lush and beautiful look of 1937 whirling in the luster of uber-rich white people and their uber-petty problems as they take a riverboat down the Nile, rarely taking a moment from their screwing and dancing and jealousy to give a rip about the ancient landscapes just over the railing.  Everything is sparkling from the champagne to the white linens to the wood paneling to the polished sheen on the murder weapon.  This is lavishly sun-drenched vacation down the Nile with beautiful people who are mostly rotten to the core.

Yet, their prologue and our introduction is established first in a London nightclub where Poirot is reasonably caught up on the rhythm and blues wrought by the steely Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her equally tough niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright) who are so interesting that you mourn the fact that they are supporting players.  The central attention, however, falls on Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) a lover, a cad, and also a bit of a dunderhead, who never-the-less engages in a near-pornographic dance with his fiancée Jaqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey).  This union is troubled by the introduction of Jaqueline’s childhood friend Linnet Ridgeway, a breathtaking beauty whose luminous introduction destroys Simon’s resolve and his fidelity (she is, after all, played by Gal Gadot). 

All-too-soon, Simon and Linnet are married in Egypt in spite of Jaqueline and we get the prerequisite gaggle of characters brought onboard for the trip down the Nile on the S.S. Karnak.  Poirot is brought on by his friend Bonc (Thomas Bateman) along with his snarky painter mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), also Linette’s former fiancé Linus (Russell Brand), her lawyer Andrew (Ali Fazal), her maid Louise (Rose Leslie), her godmother Marie (Jennifer Saunders), Marie’s nurse Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French) and also Salome and Rosalie who have been brought on board to perform.  Unfortunately, also in attendance is Jaqueline, drinking heavily and reasonably bitter over losing her Simon to Linnet. 

What took me by surprise is exactly how long it takes for the murder to happen.  In this set-up you usually have introductions, then the murder and the bulk is given to the investigation.  But Branagh is patient, the murder takes place after an hour so that by that time we sense the ratcheting tension between Simon and Linnet and Jaqueline and just about everyone else who are stuck on board the Karnak.  You know something is going to happen but you’re not sure what, someone is going to die and the wrong person will be immediately accused (remember: I hadn’t read the book).  It’s such a mixed cocktail and when the murder does take place, there’s a genuine sense of dread.

When Poirot gets sniffing is where the movie gets interesting.  Branagh and Green have put together a narrative that wants to resist the idea of the comfy cozy murder, a genre that always makes me uncomfortable.  When the resolution comes, there is always the feeling of a Murder Mystery Dinner in which it all feels like a game, but there’s a little more emotional weight to the proceedings here.  When the story is over and the body is pulled off the ship, you sense that, yes, someone is dead.  It has affected Poirot deeply and gives some credence to something that has always bothered me: If Poirot is so brilliant why couldn’t he prevent these murders?  The fact that he has failed falls heavy on his face – it’s a good internal performance by Branagh.

His affection for the material is backed, of course, by the luscious set design (Abi Groves) and cinematography (Haris Zambarloukos) which is almost obscene given that this is 1937 and there is a worldwide depression going on.  I liked this film because I didn’t expect it to be as dense as it turns out to be.  It’s not a jaunting little murder mystery.  There are some things at stake that we don’t’ expect and a twist at the end that I found quite clever.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Mystery/Suspense