Many feature films have experienced release delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s hard to imagine anything that will end up looking so much like a relic from another time due to delays such as that of Kenneth Branagh. Death on the Nile. In the two years since its first scheduled release date, at least three major cast members have been involved in well-publicized off-screen behavior ranging from embarrassing to controversial to downright rude criminal; Branagh himself has released two more films he made while acting. It’s not easy for a period piece to feel so immediately dated, especially when it’s only been five years between this and Branagh. Murder on the Orient Express— yet here we are.
The irony, of course, is that Branagh’s interpretation of Agatha Christie’s super sleuth, Hercule Poirot, keeps trying very difficult to make its protagonist modern and relatable, rather than a nearly century-old fossil. While Death on the Nile manages to be less actively irritating in his stylized sensibilities than Murder on the Orient Expressit still suffers from the misunderstanding that the only way to make a vintage character “relevant” for the 21st century is to make that character completely unrecognizable.
Most of the story takes place in Egypt in 1937, where Poirot de Branagh is vacationing among the pyramids. There he meets an old friend, Goat (Tom Bateman), and later finds himself invited to join the wedding party of heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and her new husband, Simon (Armie Hammer). . The newlyweds and their guests board a riverboat on the Nile, and as tensions between the guests emerge, a corpse is discovered. Naturally, everyone is suspect: Simon’s (Emma Mackey) abandoned ex-fiancée; Linnet’s abandoned ex-fiancé (Russell Brand); a blues singer (Sophie Okonedo) and her entrepreneur/niece (Letitia Wright); Bouc’s mother (Annette Bening); Linnet’s godmother and fellow nurse (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French); and more.
Since this is an Agatha Christie adaptation, a significant part of the plot consists of scenes centering on Poirot grilling suspects to uncover clues; since this is a film directed by Kenneth Branagh, it is impossible for these scenes to be made as simple exchanges of shots/reverse shots/rehearsal. When Poirot has an intimate conversation with Bouc, it is filmed through the backs of the wicker chairs, as if the two men were a penitent and his confessor; the exchange between Poirot and Bouc’s mother repeatedly turns between Poirot on one side of a dividing wall and the uncompromising woman on the other. There are occasions, like the movement through the riverboat that gives a great sense of its claustrophobic geography, where Branagh’s penchant for a peripatetic camera gives advantages. And then there are the times when he places him underwater to look up at Poirot where it looks like Branagh is just thinking, “Well, this would be different.”
The creative impulse to be “different” is understandable, but it’s hard to fathom what’s going through the minds of Branagh and returning screenwriter Michael Green. Orient-Express– in their approach to Poirot. On the one hand, it’s an intriguing part of revisionist history when a prologue set during World War I finds Poirot as a young soldier whose powers of observation alone enabled the Belgian army to win the crucial battle of the Yser. But this segment also plays out as the weirdest possible variation on the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade prologue sequence, in that it essentially serves as an origin story for… Poirot’s elaborate mustache. And that too could have been a silly lark, if it hadn’t also been linked to the deep emotional wound that Poirot carries with him that affects his ability to have relationships and yada yada yada comes to the part where you bring it all together the world in a room and already accuse the murderer.
There are sure to be people who accept their legendary fictional sleuths being given a traumatic story parallel order, especially when the mystery is energetically staged and full of exotic locations. But part of the escapist nature of Christie’s mystery formula is that the focus is entirely on whodunit, stripped of any psychology deeper than the motives of the suspects. Death on the NileEfforts to not look like a museum piece buys time for Hercule Poirot to solve the mystery, but I’m not convinced we need that much time for Poirot to solve himself.