TL;DR – Kenneth Branagh gives Agatha Christie’s crime sleuth classic a 21st century makeover.
Review (warning: spoilers)
“There is a reason the heart is the organ given to love, you know. If it stops to rest, we die. And I won’t die alone, you can be sure of that.”
This line is spoken by Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), one of the many characters that has a motive to be hostile towards Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot).
Hostile enough to commit murder? Many have done so in the name of love. And it is this fine line that is the central theme in Death on the Nile based on the book of the same name by the Dame of crime fiction, Agatha Christie.
Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as the titular detective, Hercule Poirot, and from the outset, it is clear, that Branagh dives into the role of Poirot with gusto and is passionate about the body of work generated by Christie. You would have to be, given this is the third adaption of Death on the Nile to the screen (the previous two being a television series in 2004 and a 1978 movie version directed by John Guillerman).
Enough time has passed that a revival of the material was due and though Branagh stays mostly true to the source, there is enough cinematic flair and a solid cast to allow the casual viewer to be enveloped by Poirot’s world of logic and deduction.
The tweaks that Branagh does in the film when compared to the novel add an element of noir that I found refreshing though others may view as taking some of the fun out of the Poirot story.
To point, we get to see a more human side to the Poirot character. From the opening scenes, a young Hercule is with a Belgian infantry unit in the trenches in No Man’s Land during World War I, and he is able to deduce the best time for a surprise attack. The attack succeeds but an explosion causes damage to his face. We then watch as he recovers in a camp with his fiancé nurse, Katherine, and we witness the love she has for him even though he is horribly scarred. She suggests he can grow a moustache to hide his scars, and thus the famous whiskers were born.
This sets the tone for a much deeper emotional Poirot portrayal as we then move forward to 1937 and have Poirot sitting in a London club watching a jazz-blues singer perform and being quite mesmerised by her.
This leads to another tweak in the form of Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) who in the movie is a jazz-blues singer but in the novel was a romance novelist. Her singing and the music enhances the noir feel as we watch a couple on the dance floor: Jacqueline and her fiancé Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). Their passion for each other is evident as their dirty dancing creates such heat between the pair that it is amazing that they don’t rip each other’s clothes off right then and there.
The owner of the club is the wealthy heiress, Linnet, who happens to be a childhood friend of Jacqueline. When Linnet comes waltzing in all femme fatale and Jacqueline introduces Simon to her, Jacqueline is initially oblivious to the magnetism between Linnet and her fiancé. That changes when Jacqueline encourages Simon to have a dance with her, and she suddenly sees that all the heat has transferred from her to Linnet.
Fast forward again and we’re now in Egypt. We learn that Simon has broken up with Jacqueline and is now marrying Linnet. Along with the newlyweds are a mixed assortment of characters who all ‘love’ Linnet , but also secretly harbour envy or jealousy in some form or another towards her.
This assortment includes:
- Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand) – a doctor who was previously engaged with Jacqueline before she broke it off to marry Simon.
- Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal) – Linnet’s cousin, who manages her accounts and has been embezzling her funds.
- Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie) – Linnet’s personal maid, who was going to marry a man and subsequently quit her employment, but Linnet saw to breaking the engagement.
Several more characters round off the wedding party and all have a motive to dislike Linnet in some form or other.
To make matters worse, Jacqueline has been stalking Linnet and Simon. And though she has not shown any inclination to hurting Linnet, she keeps appearing wherever the couple are and watching them.
Poirot is brought on board primarily to try and keep Linnet safe. And as they board the Karnak, a luxurious paddle boat, to take the wedding party down the Nile river, you know it is only a matter of time before poor Linnet turns up dead.
The cinematography goes a little askew when everything is set in Egypt, but Branagh ensures your focus is on the characters and trying to piece the puzzle together as to who murdered Linnet.
What surprised me was Hercule Poirot’s normally cold calculations are taken an emotional hit in a couple of unexpected ways. The first comes from Salome’s adopted niece, Rosalie (Letitia Wright), during a confrontation that reveals Poirot’s appearance in Egypt was not solely at the request of Linnet. The second is from Bouc (Tom Bateman) who is Hercule’s friend and is in love and dating Rosalie.
This adds a much needed complexity to Hercule Poirot and Branagh is allowed to show an emotional range that normally would be walled off from the viewer.
While far from flawless (for example, Annette Benning plays the part of Euphemia, a famous painter and mother to Bouc and is sadly under utilised), Death on the Nile still has enough substance and style for mystery buffs to enjoy the ride. In the process, demonstrating that Agatha Christie’s work will stand the test of time.
7.5 out of 10