Death on the Nile
A great steaming pile on the Nile. I was mildly surprised to find Oscar-winning Sir Ken was able – at times, mind – to observe a modicum of restraint with Belfast. So it’s gratifying and a great relief to learn that was a mere passing aberration. Death on the Nile sees him revert to form, as lousy as he’s ever been as a director. And as an actor, he clearly hasn’t the faintest clue about Hercules Parrot. Except, it seems, that he should play him as Doctor Who. And by that, I mean nu-Doctor Who.
It’s difficult to know where to start with this train, I mean ship, wreck. There’s obviously a degree to which Agatha Christie purists look for qualities in adaptations of her works and characters others might not. I don’t particularly count myself among their number, such that I found David Suchet’s Poirot – generally cited as the most authentic – drearily functional and inert, but Peter Ustinov’s incarnation a delight (I’d rate Joan Hickson and Margaret Rutherford equally as Marple, while obviously at opposite extremes in terms of fidelity). I know the Ustinov Death on the Nile pretty well, and I also know it has its critics and adherents. One thing we can all agree, though, is that it actually went to the Nile.
Branagh did not. He shot the entire job in the UK, in the studio, and boy, does it show. It isn’t just the Egypt exteriors that are overpowered with CGI, though; regular Branagh DP Haris Zambarloukos lends the whole picture a distracting, digital veneer, such that there’s a sense anything and anyone might have sprung from a programme, à la Pixar; the only factor pointing demonstrably to the construction of actual sets and employment of real actors is that they would surely have scrubbed and substituted Armie Hammer, were it so easy.
At times, watching Death on the Nile is reminiscent of an ’80s BBC Classic Serial– Beau Geste, for example – but with a CGI rather than CSO backdrop. It’s that fake. There at least, though, the limitations of budget – not something Death on the Nile suffered, eating up $90m, none of it well spent – were compensated by an intention to be faithful to the source material. And at their best, they also rose above the constraints of time and money. Branagh and his returning screenwriter Michael Green appear entirely indifferent to such considerations, preserving the novel’s basic setting and method of murder, but muddying, altering or woke-ing up everything else.
You see, the 1930s were, in fact, a wonderfully tolerant period, for the most part, particularly among the privileged classes. This may have been because they were all terribly disorientated, confused by their surroundings and the timeframe, as everything had a waxy, unreal sheen, especially the outdoors.
Does such an anachronistic attitude matter? Only if you care about a respectful adaptation – or about the source material at all – and a plausible period adaptation. Neither of which you’re going to get anyway, not with Sir Ken starring and directing. I’ve seen arguments that an approach such as this is necessary to get a Christie adaptation made now. That’s undoubtedly the case – since similar is prevalent industry-wide – but if you’re the kind of fan to favour quantity, any quantity, over content, just have done with it and transpose him to the present day. Perhaps service him with Hastings as his live-in lover.
Green and Branagh also manage to muddle themselves in this regard, wanting their woke cake and eating it too. As such, Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okendo), a romance novelist in the novel but now a jazz singer, refers to an incident of racism involving the murder victim (“having to share a pool with a coloured”). Beyond that passing reference, however, Death on the Nile observes such a staunch pose of presentism regarding race, you’d be excused for assuming this was an Armando Iannucci Dickens adaptation.
Indeed, you’d reasonably assume, for all the world, that there was no discrimination worth talking about in the 1930s. When Euphemia (Annette Bening) objects to the relationship between son Bouc (Tom Bateman, returning from Murder on the Orient Express) and Salome’s niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright), her only given reason is “I do not trust her”. Mummy, slightly implausibly, has no qualms over the prospect of her son embarking on an interracial marriage. Even if she was fully on board with such a development – if – you’d expect her to warn him of the inevitable societal hardships such a union would entail.
But since Poirot has taken a fancy to Salome herself, this is evidently a rebooted version of the period, one shorn of all prejudice. All? Oh wait, no. Because Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) is in a relationship with her nurse Mrs Bowers (Dawn French), and that, we learn is still taboo in this version of this time. Never fear, though. Poirot realises that love knows no bounds. Poirot is keen on the, how you say, velvet tipping.
Such permissiveness also extends to a display of dirty dancing, bordering on intercourse, with a known cannibal, during the opening sequence, as Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) shows just how “into” Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) he is. Rather than being carted off the slammer for public displays of lewdness and indecency, however, it seems to inspire Linnet (Gal Gadot) to get some of that hot anthropophaginian action herself. Quite possibly, Branagh and Green considered making it a threesome (none of this should be a surprise, coming from mild-mannered Sir Ken, rumoured to have missed out on the second Thor movie because Chris Hemsworth didn’t want his pasty paws all over his hammer).
In tandem with wokeness, it’s now a prerequisite to make protagonists massively self-involved when it comes to their emotional lives, engendering both engineered backstories and exclamatory arcs (or journeys). This kind of Character 101 tends to pass unnoticed, except when it’s applied to those established prior to such homogenising principles. This has led to such troubling developments as 900-year-old-plus Doctor Who mooning over a very human teenager, and in so doing retroactively stunting his own development (that her latest incarnation has no apparent time for such shenanigans has to be balanced against all her other deficiencies). And paper-thin sociopath 007 repeatedly being flogged like the dead horse he is, in a vain attempt to milk him for depth: give him an injury; a mother-son relationship with M; make him past-it; have him grieving over a fling, as if it were his great love; give him true happiness but omit an iota of chemistry with her; and finally, have him sacrifice his life in a manner that makes the audience collectively shrug.
Such an approach could also be seen with the abominable Sherlock, which at least had the decency to deposit its Holmes in the present day. Green treats Poirot like a Star Wars prequel by way of Just So story, detailing How the Poirot Got His Tache. This was doubtless in consultation with Branagh, aggrieved that Mendes didn’t employ him for 1917 and deciding he’d have some of that mud-and-blood cachet regardless, along with some Belfast black-and-white – a fast track to acclaim for classiness for those without any – and de-aging CGI transforming Poirot from podgy Ken to young podgy Ken. Here we learn – of course – that Poirot once had a love of his very own, but now, now he channels any carnal longings into his deductive endeavours. Like the Doctor, Poirot thus has impressed upon him a troubled back story, deep loneliness and an unrequited desire for companionship: he’s just like everyone else, basically, and so entirely deconstructed in terms of iconic heroic ideals.
It might be noted – as if you hadn’t guessed – that this Genesis of the Hercule does not reflect Christie. It’s established in The Big Four that, shorn of his moustache, he has a scar on his lip. You know, rather than half his cheek being blown off. This allows for such – quite atrocious – lines as “That mask covers your whole face, doesn’t it?”, a rebuke to Poirot’s prodigious snot mop. At the end, he can be found, shorn his spoon broom and sitting to attention as Salome sings, obviously after some Belgian waffle. Countess Vera Rossakoff (The Double Clue, The Big Four and The Capture of Cerberus) is the detective’s only “love” interest in the novels, one compared to Holmes’ Irene Adler and thus more concerned with adversarial/ intellectual stimulation than tossing his orb about. Whatever next, Miss Marple in hot steamy rumpo at the vicarage?
As I’ve regretfully noted, this is “directed” by Ken, who has been dead set on assaulting our eyeballs at very least since Dead Again. Consequently, from the “trademark” dizzying, looping, incontinent camera during the dancefloor opening, Death on the Nile is a mess of distracting cutting, arbitrary angles and “operatic” tracks and zooms; Branagh’s really developed no acumen at all as a director in the past three decades. Instead, he has fiercely maintained a credo of “Do stuff and lots of it”.
He’s also become additionally enamoured of himself in that time, which means he has become ever more likely to indulge his clueless whims; it takes more than an hour of slogging through Death of the Nile before there’s an actual murder. During this time, Ken forlornly tries to show he’s hip on the soundtrack (“Your bluesy music”), throws in CGI critters like he’s apprenticed at Lucasfilm (CGI snake attack, CGI croc, etc), and labours under the illusion that, with this kind of budget, anything bigger must be better. Hence, the MASSIVE Wylie Coyote boulder that nearly does for Linnet and Simon. The ridiculous foot chase after Bouc is murdered, complete with flying axes and knives, works to make the original (concise) novelistic conceit appear absurd rather than dramatic. At the climax, Poirot fires his gun in the air to gather the attention of the suspects. Why? Because it’s exciting! When the murders’ identities are revealed, there’s an impromptu Mexican standoff. I’ll admit, the body caught in the paddle is a neat touch, but the odds suggested something, somewhere had to be effective.
Most of the responses to the movie I’ve seen have immediately taken Gal Gadot to task, due to her being perennially bland/wooden/unable to act. I don’t actually mind her, but it has to be said she leaves no lasting impression of Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle’s intended character. Chances are, all you’ll recall is her WTF? Queen of the Nile scene. She’s there to be looked at, basically. Saunders joins the ranks of English performers unable to deliver a passable American accent (the most recent high-profile offender being Cumberbatch). Russell Brand is so subdued, you’re doubtful that’s even him. Everyone else is competent, within the limitations of the material they’ve been given. Which is to say Bateman, in particular, irritates.
It seems Death on the Nile was more than woke enough to get the Disney seal of approval, so the greenlight for a third picture looks likely, despite this one failing to break even at the box office (net, rather than gross). Agatha Christie really needs to disinherit her great-grandson from beyond the grave for allowing such dreck to carry her name.
First published by Now in Full Color on 31/03/22.