Remember those scenes at the start of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where River Phoenix played the young Indy and we found out how he got the hat and his fear of snakes? They were fun little grace notes to this character we had come to know and love and that added some fun moments to the film. Now though, we have had so many legacy sequels and reboots that trip over themselves to explain details that were better left unexplored or were just plain irrelevant that we have all become somewhat tired of this game. So it is then, at the start of this film, that we get an origin story for Hercule Poirot’s moustache. This, in an otherwise interesting flashback (Death on the Nile starts with death in the trenches), raises more of an eyebrow than a smile. Also, small spoiler here, but hair doesn’t grow through scar tissue.
All of this unnecessary backstory is there to add to the portrayal of the famous sleuth and I understand the desire to do something new here. In the hands of Kenneth Branagh, as actor and director, this Poirot is an anguished and frustrated man, struggling to live with what he, by his own design, has become. It is a long way from the fastidious and mannered man he was under David Suchet whose performance was actually best when the tiny moments of doubt and humanity cracked through. Here though we have moved further, albeit not entirely, away from the fussiness of this version of the character seen in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and he is all passion and emotion. It is the control and restraint that seem to be losing his internal battle here. Also, prior to the classic ‘I have gathered you all here’ scene, he doesn’t seem to be that great a detective. There are certainly some people who get hurt because he isn’t quite on his game. It’s the direction they have chosen so I’m not going to criticise them for it but it’s going to be a problem for the Christie purists.
Around this it is all business as usual for a big whodunnit. Lavish sets, great costumes and a range of star turns from some notable actors. I felt that some of the cast were wasted in Branagh’s last Poirot movie but everyone generally gets their due in this one. It isn’t as distracting as I thought it would be having recently exposed serial abuser Armie Hammer in the film. What we now know of him almost fits with the smarm and arrogance of the character in what will suddenly and rightly be his last performance. Opposite him Gal Gadot brings all of the glamour and some of the acting skills she showed as Wonder Woman and gets to use her own accent which most definitely isn’t the case with everyone. Sophie Okonedo and Letitia Wright shine, as they always do (more on them later). French and Saunders are also great and don’t turn this into one of their excellent movie parodies at any point which must have been an impulse they had to fight against. (The film treads a bit of a fine line here as it is.) Russell Brand is very good too, similarly restraining his natural comedic tendencies and showing that perhaps he does deserve the movie career he has somehow managed to get himself. Most notable though is Emma Mackey who emerges impressively from Netflix’s Sex Education TV show as a fully formed movie star, easily holding her own against all of the above, and Annette Bening.
The film also works as it should with the intrigue. There have been some changes to Agatha Christie’s original plot but even a diluted Christie mystery is leagues ahead of many other crime writers, and actually the fact that these people on this boat all now know each other rather than them mostly being strangers as they were in the book, only adds to the questions over their motivations. As it is, there is no death on the Nile until about an hour in (unless you count the occasional bit of wildlife being picked off by a predator in some heavily metaphorical side imagery) so you spend the second half trying to work out who the murderer is and the first half wondering who is going to be murdered.
Death on the Nile is a perfectly enjoyable film even if it doesn’t quite match other’s efforts to bring these stories up to date with the BBC’s recent adaptations of And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence and The ABC Murders. It still moves beyond the gentle Sunday teatime TV shows of the 80s and 90s though. It does take itself very seriously and I am not sure if I was able to do the same but if you like this sort of thing then it’s worth your time. The victim isn’t the only thing that is efficiently executed.
The Ripley Factor:
This being a story originally published in 1937 there are a few gender stereotypes; the crazed jealous woman/femme fatale, the matronly older lady, the forthright matriarch, the scheming maid, the fragile heiress. (Although to be fair they aren’t all in the source novel.) The story being written by a woman though, they all have agency and they often drive the narrative. The film itself doesn’t lean into all of the tropes and it is a great example of how you can show female beauty without objectification.
The strongest women are definitely Sophie Okonedo’s jazz singer and Letitia Wright as her niece and manager. The two of them are intelligent and bold and challenge all kinds of prejudice. They are undeniably the most level headed couple on the water and the movie would be much less without them and the actors who play them.