Death on the Nile (2022)


Stalk Like an Egyptian

Main Cast: Kenneth Branagh.

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Pardon my absence from these pages for the past few weeks but I have been deep in rehearsal for the new musical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. We’ve had to make a few tweaks to the source material in order to create an enduring work of art which will appeal to the younger generations. The first thing that had to go was, of course, the title. Harper Lee may have been a literary genius, but the reference is simply too obscure for a bold and brassy American musical comedy so, after several trials, we have settled on Scout’s Honor as the new title which allows my role of Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch to become the title role. No one was going to pay Broadway prices to see a mockingbird on stage for two and a half hours. Besides which, their feet simply don’t fit into tap shoes. We tried.

With the new title in place and an appropriate change in focus from Atticus to Scout, the material is beginning to come together and really shine. Of course, there have been a few casting difficulties, especially with the role of Atticus. Actors age appropriate to play my father have had problems with the demands of the role. I remain my ever youthful thirty-nine as I have for some years but the role I am playing is that of a young girl, so we need to cast an older man full of gravitas in order to maintain the illusion of my extreme youth.

This casting is vexing indeed. We may need to circle back to Arnold.

Our first choice was Clint Eastwood, but when he came in for his reading with me, he spent the whole time talking to an empty chair about trees and we had some issues refocusing him on the subject at hand. Dear Clint also doesn’t have a lot of stage experience and I would be a bit worried about the toll eight shows a week might make on him. Arnold Schwarzenegger simply could not do an Alabama accent and a rewrite explaining how Atticus was a refugee from the Anschluss was more than our writing team wanted to tackle. Anthony Hopkins nailed the part in the reading, but we got a note later from his people that he would not take the part unless he had sole above the title billing and that’s simply a non-starter where I am concerned. We have more meetings scheduled later this week and, in the meantime, we can begin rehearsing the big second act courthouse tap number with the ensemble.

I ended up having a free evening, so I made my way to the home theater, looked at the streaming channels, and decided to settle in with the remake of Death on the Nile, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring himself as Agatha Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot. It’s a sequel to Branagh’s previous foray into Christie country, Murder on the Orient Express from 2017. Both of these projects are in some ways tributes to the previous all star lavish productions of the same titles which were made in the mid-1970s, one with Albert Finney and one with Peter Ustinov (who went on to star on a bunch more). I had sort of enjoyed the Branagh Murder on the Orient Express when I saw it several years ago, so I made myself a very large green apple martini and settled into a padded fainting couch in order to take another trip back to the 1930s and the classic period of the British Whodunnit.

The time is 1937 and, after an unnecessary prologue which explains how Hercule Poirot came to grow his famous mustache, we’re in between the wars London in a Soho jazz club where Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo), playing a variation of Sister Rosetta Tharpe is entertaining a crowd of slumming aristocrats including Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) who is there to meet her old school chum Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) and her handsome fiancé Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer).

There’s some dirty dancing, 1930s style and we suddenly cut to six weeks later and we’re at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza with Poirot on holiday and his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his mother (Annette Bening) trading barbs with each other as she paints, and he flies kites. Then we’re off to the hotel where we meet the newlywed Mr. Simon Doyle only, surprise, the new bride is Linnet and not Jackie. But Jackie, as a woman scorned, is not taking this lying down and she is dogging the happy couples’ footsteps wherever they go so as to remind them how they done her wrong.

The wedding/honeymoon party includes not only the couple but Linnet’s maid (Rose Leslie), Linnet’s ex (Russel Brand), her godmother and her godmother’s ‘nurse’ (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), Linnet’s shady financial adviser (Ali Fazal) and Salome Otterbourne and her niece/manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright) who have been hired to provide the entertainment.

Everyone ends up on a Nile steamer heading upriver to view the temples, including Jacqueline who continues to crash the party and Poirot. There are some plot mechanics to explain why these people are all on a private cruise, but they aren’t terribly interesting, so I didn’t pay much attention. Soon there is an attempt on Linnet’s life. Is Jacqueline escalating or does one of the others have a reason to want her dead? And shortly thereafter, Linnet is found murdered in her bed. But it couldn’t have been Jacqueline who has been sedated after a fit of hysterics and under the watchful eye of the nurse and it couldn’t have been Simon as Jacqueline conveniently shot him in the leg after a drunken scene in the lounge prior to the murder.

Poirot is on the case. He uncovers blackmail, misunderstandings, various clues, more than a few red herrings, and more bodies pile up until he gathers the remaining suspects in the lounge and explains all.

The general mechanics of the plot and the murder are straight out of the original Agatha Christie novel and the same as the 1978 film of the same name. This version of Death on the Nile, however, takes a number of liberties with characters and events. Some characters are combined, others eliminated. All of the major suspects are given a personal connection to Linnet to beef up their possible motives for doing her in which is somewhat different than in the original where they were more fellow travelers. Bouc, who is a character from Murder on the Orient Express is carried over to more closely tie the two films together. One of the murders has a different victim than the book and original film but still fulfills the same plot function. If you’ve never read the novel or seen the original film adaptation, you may have difficulty sorting the mystery out prior to the denouement. If you have, you know where it’s going, and you can spend your time seeing how Branagh drops the clues to the solution throughout the film.

Death on the Nile has a much more realistic look than the 70s adaptations had which tended to go over the top in terms of costume and scenic design. The clothes, while elegant, look like they might actually have been worn during the period and the design of the Nile steamer is sleek and art deco and a full fantasia of a between-the-wars interior, especially when it comes to the lounge with its enormous doors which are used to full effect in several shots. I loved it but did wonder at how seaworthy it might be as an actual floating vessel, even for river travel.

The performances fit the look. Sleek and elegant. Armie Hammer’s legal difficulties caused the filmmakers to downplay his role (even though he is the second male lead after Poirot), and he is the weakest link in the cast. Simon needs to be full of charisma and carnality and Mr. Hammer, while conventionally good looking, has neither. Gal Gadot simply has to look beautiful, even in death, and she achieves that without too much difficulty. Most of the rest are veteran character actors looking to make the most of their inadequate screen time. I could have done without the prologue in order to spend some more time with French and Saunders or Annette Bening. As for Branagh’s Poirot, he’s fussy, obviously more mentally ill with OCD than prior variations on the character, and we can see how he’s thinking through the crime with logic and his little grey cells as he shifts his eyes and regards people and objects.

The whole enterprise is perfectly enjoyable in a formulaic way and enough of a success to encourage additional Branagh entries in the series, the next being an adaptation of the later novel Hallowe’en Party which is apparently being reset from small town England to post war Venice. No, I don’t know why. Personally, I’d like to see a film version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but it might be difficult to translate the trick in that book, the one that vaulted Agatha Christie to the head of the class of Whodunnit writers, into the film medium. Still, it might be worth trying. I wouldn’t put Death on the Nile on in the background while doing the ironing though. You need to pay attention as anything might be a clue.

Uneven desserts. Birds in the wind. Pink paint. Falling boulders. Gratuitous dance party. Too much champagne. Dead girlfriends. Dead wives. Missing scalpel. Missing jewelry. Multiple Sister Rosetta Tharpe songs.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction.

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