A New Interpretation of Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’ Is Both a Delight and a Drag

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is watching. Sitting in a London bar, nibbling his favourite desserts, Poirot is all by himself. The dance floor is alive — young bodies twisting, brushing, craving. A woman, Jackie (Emma Mackey), introduces her fiancé, Simon (Armie Hammer), to her childhood friend, the famous heiress Linett (Gal Gadot). Simon and Linett soon break into a dance; their chemistry makes Jackie jealous. Poirot hasn’t moved an inch all this while; he’s still alone, still watching. Six weeks later, it all makes sense. Welcome to Death on the Nile, a sequel to the 2017 Murder on the Orient Express, both directed by Branagh.

Death on the Nile was made in 1978 with Peter Ustinov playing the fictional detective and now Branagh, after the success of Murder on the Orient Express, has stepped into the role.

Poirot is on a cruise in Egypt, six weeks later, where an affluent couple is celebrating their honeymoon. He has seen the main characters before — Jackie, Simon, Linett — but in different identities. Because now Simon and Linett are married, while Jackie has become a jilted lover, stalking and threatening them. Linett confides in Poirot that she fears for her life, that she can’t trust even one person on the cruise. Turns out she is right: She’s soon found dead in her bed. Poirot has been here before: a moving transport, a dead body, multiple suspects. The broad contours of his last case, on the Orient Express (and many other Christie novels), were similar.

The telling retains the valuable and enjoyable essence of Poirot. An old sleuth in a bad world, he navigates the sea of crime like a seasoned sailor (minus the cuss words): a calm head, a snarky sense of humour, healthy skepticism, and self-aware self-absorption. If Branagh, the actor, understands the detective, then Branagh, the director, understands the source material, Agatha Christie’s novel. Unlike an Arthur Conan Doyle story, Christie’s world has a distinct stately charm. Even with all the murders and grisly motives, the stories feel disturbing only till a point. The main characters, often elites of the time, don’t abandon their grace or fashion even in the most imperilled situations. In fact, the dead bodies in such worlds look more elegant than many people alive — including in Death on the Nile, where Linnet lies dead wearing a silky gown, a small trace of blood lining her temple, as if it is make-up gone wrong.

It is a tricky tone to execute — finding the right balance between ‘controlled’ melodrama and appropriate realism — but Branagh and his crew are up to the task. They bring out these facets through not just engaging performances (Branagh, Mackey, Jennifer Saunders, and Sophie Okonedo are particularly striking — Ali Fazal, too, is credible in a small role and Branagh himself, is charming as Poirot) but also different film forms. The cinematography is gorgeous and grand: the camera glides long distances in the air, romancing a vast range of picturesque settings (the pyramids, the desert, the lakes). Even the background score is appropriately theatrical. It doesn’t take long to be a part of this world — a film so beautiful I could watch it on mute.

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Even Poirot adds to the drama. The man gets drunk on champagne and remembers his old lover. He is attracted to a Black singer, Salome (Okonedo), and stammers in her presence like a disoriented adolescent. Set in 1937, Death on the Nile manages to slip in some social commentary, too, including some excellent lines on racism by Salone and her niece (Letitia Wright). Fazal’s inclusion doesn’t seem like a ‘progressive’ casting stunt, either. He plays Linnet’s cousin and lawyer, and the movie doesn’t make a big deal about it (in fact, it doesn’t even explain the racial mismatch — a nice subtle touch).

The main problem in Death on the Nile, then, doesn’t arise from what makes the film but what’s in it. If its tone is fine, then its pace is not. There’s little in the movie that justifies its runtime of 127 minutes. It opens to a long segment in Belgium, in 1914 — unrelated to the main story — where Poirot, a farmer-turned-soldier, defeats the enemy using his intellect. It then cuts to an injured Poirot in a hospital, where we get no remarkable insight into his character or the story, except for how he got his bewitching moustache (as a long-time fan, I appreciated the detail, but it didn’t serve any impactful purpose).

Then there’s the crime itself. Two main problems: a) the murder happens substantially late in the film, making its earlier portions — which don’t delve deep into the minds of the characters — drag, b) Poirot’s investigation lacks compelling momentum and bite. You can understand why Branagh chose this story for his sequel. Like Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile casts a vast array of characters as suspects. There is social commentary here: that, in a ravaged divided world, nearly everyone has a motive, nearly everyone can be a criminal. But apart from some exceptions, we don’t get a real sense of these people, not even the murdered heiress who, we get to know after her death, was not such a nice person after all.

Poirot’s sleuthing is way too linear. The whole thing is framed as a series of interrogations, where he essentially accuses almost everyone of being a murderer, revealing their hidden motives. Worse, we hear all of this, in scene after scene, experiencing a long narrative tedium. I often felt like I was watching two different films: one where Poirot is zooming in on the case, and the other before the murder, where the characters are in ‘happier’ times revealing hardly anything about themselves. Even the stalking-ex, though performed well by Mackey, is both uni-dimensional and repetitive.

Sure, a thriller needs deflections and red herrings to keep us guessing, but Death on the Nile doesn’t choose its arsenal well. And even though the movie credibly fleshes out the softer side of Poirot, it sometimes slips into long schmaltzy sermons on love (by his wife, Linnet, and Jackie). The cumulative effect is a strange concoction — one that both delights and disappoints — elevating Poirot, the man, but letting down Poirot, the detective.

Featured image: A still from ‘Death on the Nile’.

This article was first published on The Wire.