I was brought up on classic whodunnits. From the ages of twelve to eighteen, at least three whodunnits would be watched by our family in your average week. They were usually terrestrial TV adaptations, we cycled through Poirot, Marple, Morse, Midsomer Murders and any flavour of the month that would briefly appear (anybody remember Rosemary and Thyme? Just me?). I would also devour whodunnit books as a teen, working my way through a large amount of Agatha Christie, mostly Poirot. The whodunnit obsession had a simple origin: compromise. It was the palatable entertainment that a family of varied interests could all fall back on, the genre staple that my parents, myself and my brother all found watchable. It was out of comfort, certainly, but the genre, at its best, can also be very good. There’s such an inherent appeal to a well done, classic mystery, one that is full of intrigue and uses that tone to create fun characters and a twisting tale that pulls in the audience. It’s a solid formula and even the most forgettable examples had a slither of that basic appeal, enough to keep you watching. This, of course, is not true for Death on the Nile.
Before unpicking the myriad issues with Death on the Nile, the latest big screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s moustachioed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (here, terribly portrayed by Kenneth Branagh, who also directs), let’s address the immediate discomfort. This is a film that has been heavily delayed during the pandemic, to the extent that the seemingly dazzling cast has become an albatross around its neck, as a handful of the actors have been involved in various scandals (some of them being incredibly serious, all of them objectionable). The most notable would be Armie Hammer, currently facing a large number of abuse allegations, all of which conform to a pattern of abhorrent behaviours. Where other films are replacing him, Death on the Nile displays the need to do this. Not just as a marketing move, or as a moral signal, but to reduce the active discomfort of both audience and cast. Hammer’s introductory scene is incredibly sexualised (as is his character throughout) as he dances, in a hyperbolically sexual manner, with two of the female leads (one after the other). It is really horrible to watch and viewers will also be cognisant of how horrible it must be, in retrospect, for the women involved, who would have acted in the scenes unaware of Hammer’s behaviours.
To retreat back to the safe haven of film criticism, though, they are also just terrible scenes, indicative of the wider issues with the film. This modern adaptation of Death on the Nile feels the need to turn everything up to far beyond eleven. It takes a classic mystery and distorts it beyond recognition, overloading the screen with empty flair and pointless excess. This dancing scene is new to the narrative, a new interpretation of a set of events that take place before the novel the film is based on, filling in a narrative gap that was barely a gap to begin with. The story of Death on the Nile rests upon a spurned lover: Armie’s Hammer’s Simon Doyle is in a whirlwind romance with Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) for all of five cinematic minutes (at most) until Gal Gadot’s Linnet Ridgeway (whose defining character trait is being rich beyond measure) appears. All we need to know is that Simon was with Jacqueline, and is now with Linnet (the main body of the film being their honeymoon trip to Egypt, following a hasty marriage). But, the film decides to throw in an explanatory scene just to wallow in cinematic excess, and to set up a number of other plot strands completely invented for the movie. This scene also serves as the introduction for Letitia Wright’s Rosalie Otterbourne and Sophie Okonedo’s Salome Otterbourne, who are in the blues music business, the latter character being a replacement for the romance novelist role in the original text. So, not only does this moment bring together the three main sources of acting discomfort into one scene (Hammer, Wright (who has shared anti-vax material) and Gadot (a vocal supporter of Israel and the IDF (which she also served in)), it’s also just emblematic of the film at its worst. We have uncomfortable dancing, that would be too much even without the actor involved; we have dialogue and performances that exist far beyond melodrama; obnoxious production design (it is such an ugly movie) and bewildering new decisions that leave the feel of the original text behind.
This entire scene is needless, but it is also the second needless scene in the film… And also the second scene in the film. Seemingly rising out of a desire to directly insult the audience, this Death on the Nile adaptation starts with a World War I flashback that also serves as a pointless backstory for Poirot’s moustache. Again, another indication of the overwhelming issues with the film. Like Branagh’s previous Poirot adaptation (the atrocious Murder on the Orient Express (2017)), this feels the bewildering need to focus in on the character of Poirot. It is such a strange decision as Branagh’s performance is so bad. Death on the Nile lays itself out as a kind of long dark night of the soul for Poirot, in which his past errors or general way of being starts to dominate his characterisation. It is just a nonsensical choice, giving dramatic weight to a figure who only exists to be intelligent, meticulous and affected. Poirot exists for others to be characters around, an anchor in each story that allows a mystery to be solved. Branagh can’t allow this to happen, he must make him into a heroic yet flawed figure, the dark-antihero Poirot that nobody asked for. He also has to make him somewhat of an action star, it’s such a naked act of self-aggrandisement. To contrast it to the 1978 adaptation of the same text, that film has Poirot (played by Peter Ustinov) as the victim of an attempted snake attack. It is a moment of light comedy but also actual peril, a well staged scene in which Poirot is actually under threat and has to be saved, facilitating his rescue through his intelligence but not able to deal with the snake himself. This scene is important as it gets round a core issue that the new film has (when the bodies start to stack up, ostensibly to cover up previous crimes and to evade detection, why not take out Poirot? You know, the legendary detective that you are murdering people around) but it also has a direct parallel in the new film, where Poirot exercises his lightning fast reflexes to pacify a venomous snake with a cane before it can attack Gadot’s Linnet. Later, we even have Poirot strutting around with a pistol, it’s a mockery.
The WWI opening is especially atrocious, though. A crass use of tragic history that creates a grand tonal dissonance and that doesn’t belong in the film at all. Not only does Poirot’s moustache not need a backstory, it definitively does not need a backstory that is as distasteful as this. It boils down to Poirot becoming visibly different, and then the suggestion that his visible difference is acceptable only if he covers it up with a moustache. It’s a joke in which the setup is the first world war and in which the punchline is that visible difference should be covered up for the sake of others. It is one of many tone deaf moments in a completely tone deaf film. In fact, tone is a persistent issue in the film. Where a whodunnit should have a build of tension and a sense of danger, or of underlying conflict, this just wastes your time on screen until murders happen, then deals with them all incredibly shoddily. The tone varies wildly throughout but is never appropriate. This collection of Branagh and his famous friends is not allowed to be a whodunnit cast, nobody is allowed to really have ostensible motive or exist as a foreshadowing presence. Everybody is in ‘I’m a star’ mode, being displayed for the camera and all being utilised like partygoers rather than future suspects. At one point, Linnet remarks to Poirot that she doesn’t feel safe among these people, a line necessary for the events about to happen but one that makes no sense in the film we are watching. Even when there’s been an attempted murder, the possibility of the film becoming a whodunnit seems out of the question. It is just a bunch of irritating people hanging out and annoying the viewer; there are no characters here, never mind suspects with motives. It’s all carnivalesque, failed camp, a far cry from Christie, that eventually feels the need to slightly approximate the basic plot of the source text.
Things that should be foundational details, the moments that make it a whodunnit, are instead left as plot twists. This means there’s no build of intrigue and no correct use of genre language. What we have instead is an ugly mess. The film’s overreliance on green screen and obnoxious camera movements makes it look far worse than the 1978 version. It also drains it of any impact on the viewer. It has the feel of a cartoon, with moments happening for spectacle rather than for plot, or to craft a mystery. This would be fine if the spectacle was worth watching (it’s not) or if it fit in with the story being told (it doesn’t). In fact, a lot of the film feels like a stealth trailer for Gadot’s upcoming starring vehicle, Cleopatra, with a number of forced and utterly incongruous links between Linnet and the figure. Because the film has no idea about what it should be. It’s almost hilarious that a director most famous for adapting Shakespeare to the screen shows a complete misunderstanding of the work of Agatha Christie, and has so little faith in their audience. This is a film in which we have a shot that starts under the water, that pans up to reveal a large river with the pyramids displayed in the background only to put ‘The River Nile’ on the screen, in a brash, neon typeface. That’s how little faith Branagh has in his audience.
Quite simply, this whole thing is atrocious. Branagh is, charitably, too caught up in theatrics to make cinema. But even the theatrics are overdone and uninteresting. Certainly, though, he has no idea (nor do the wider filmmakers) of how to use the language of cinema. He especially doesn’t understand how to use a camera as an effective device, constantly relying on either ugly or pointless shots. The only substantive pieces of visual filmmaking are the constant aerial shots that make it clear the boat our characters are on is shaped like a coffin. That’s as subtle as we get, and it happens about a hundred times. There’s no class here, in fact there’s barely any Christie. It is a brash and obnoxious exercise in artifice and irritation (in which we frequently have a character defined by being a blues guitarist who repeatedly strums along to music that doesn’t feature a guitar) that seems to have active disdain for its audience. It is a film that knows the property is enough for profit, and shoves known actors in it to maximise this potential. And it’s such a shame, because there’s a fun mystery buried in here. It is just obfuscated by so many made up narrative arcs, and compressed characters, all with new or twisted motivations that bend the Christie text into something unrecognisable.