‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new movie version of Death on the Nile is OK. Unfortunately, it is not all that interesting, but it does present a reasonably decent time at the movies. Of course, there are a lot of films on streaming services now that are easily as good. How could a classic Agatha Christie mystery go wrong? There are several reasons.
The plot is rather creaky. Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) sitting in a jazz club, admiring singer Salome (Sophie Okonedo), when he sees a loving couple, Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and Jackie DeBellefort (Emma Mackey) entwined in a dance. A few minutes later, heiress and Jackie’s good friend Linnet (Gal Gadot) enters and is introduced to Simon. The plot jumps ahead six months, and Linnet has just married Simon. They and a group of motley friends, along with Poirot, are at a hotel in Egypt as part of a honeymoon party. Jackie suddenly appears, threatening. Everyone winds up on a boat sailing the Nile, and we find that just about everyone has some reason to dislike Linnet. There is an attempted murder, and then a series of murders, and, in similar fashion to the far better Murder on the Orient Express, everyone on the boat seems to have a motive for killing. And, not surprisingly, Poirot figures out the answers.
The film is stylish, sort of quasi-British of the 1930s, although the characters have been updated to allow more diversity. The problem is that the only person the camera seems to linger on is Branagh, who is also the director. But most of the characters are rather boring — not the fault of the actors. Okonedo stands out, both for her singing and her personality, but she is not even one of the more vital cast members. Quite a few were well-known celebrities at some point, often years ago. But they were mostly cyphers here. And that creates a major plot problem. A barely noticed or developed character is seldom that vital to good plotting. When you know virtually nothing about a character, and the actor is not particularly striking, they are less likely to be a key plot point.
Another problem is probability. I will not go into details, because that would spoil the film if you see it, but it is not all that difficult to figure out the ending. In the Orient Express film, we had that incredible plot twist (if you haven’t seen the 1974 version of that movie, make sure you do even if just for the incredible cast) that really saves the day. One of the top elements was that there were so many stars who were possible killers… Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, etc., were all possibilities. A few years later, a version of the Death on the Nile story was done and was not as good. I saw it, but forgot the plot. As a result, this time it actually took about 15 minutes to figure it out.
Added to that, the focus on Poirot became more important than in pretty much any of the stories. We find out that he wore the mustaches that dominate Branagh’s face to cover up a nasty facial wound he got in World War I. At the end, he is looking for the woman who has become at least somewhat of a love interest, and the mustaches are gone, showing the wound.
In a certain sense, this demonstrates a key weakness in his direction. There are constant distractions from the plot. In Murder on the Orient Express, it was views of the snow preventing the train’s getting through. Here there are constant shots of the Nile with no apparent point, as well as a far stronger focus on Poirot’s personality and problems. I would guess this is to make up the creakiness of the plot.
Yet the film itself does move along and at least some of the people have a sense of style. The pyramids and the Sphinx are also impressive. And if you don’t know the plot, you might enjoy the twists and turns that Christie is famous for. So, my thumb is neither up nor down. It is OK, and better than some other films, but Dame Agatha does deserve better And, if you haven’t, see the two great movies based on her work, the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express and the 1957 Witness for the Prosecution.