Amidst or perhaps because of a heated Oscar campaign, 20th Century Studios has decided to finally release Kenneth Branagh’s COVID-delayed whodunit Death on the Nile, his second adaptation of Agatha Christie’s beloved Hercule Poirot novels. It’s hard to screw up Christie’s excellent plots, which made the author the Queen of Crime, and this is the third adaptation of her 1937 book of the same name. Ultimately, Branagh doesn’t screw it up, though not for a lack of trying. A series of ill-conceived plot alterations — clearly aimed at appeasing 2022 sensibilities — almost ruin the entire picture, which is otherwise perfectly crafted and stupendously entertaining. Thankfully, the original story, the impeccable crafts on display, and, yes, even the amusing acting by the A-list cast, are strong enough to keep this otherwise grandiose vessel from sinking.
As in the book, the story follows famed Belgian detective Poirot (Branagh) on a River Nile vacation. There, he encounters troubled millionaire heiress Lynette Ridgeway on a honeymoon. Lynette is played with gusto and the right dose of innocent sex appeal by a stupendous Gal Gadot, while Armie Hammer plays her fiancé, Simon Doyle. Also onboard the Nile steamer in which Poirot lounges are a host of classic Christie characters, such as the former best friend (Emma Mackey), the former fiancé (Russell Brand), the seedy lawyer (Ali Fazal), the maid (Rose Leslie), a jazz singer (Sophie Okonedo), her daughter (Letitia Wright), and a renowned painter (Annette Benning). The character of Bouc (Tom Bateman), who was invented by screenwriter Michael Green in his first Christie adaptation, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, returns to serve as the Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock. Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French round out the stupendous cast as old spinsters. Obviously, it is curtains for one of these characters, and Poirot is quickly on the complicated case.
There’s a reason Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time, with 66 hits under her belt, and that her principal character, the obnoxious Belgian detective with the twisted mustache is the only fictional character whose obituary appeared in the New York Times. Despite her stuffy Victorianism, Christie’s plots are clever, her characters comedically interesting, her reveals astounding. The new adaptation of Death on the Nile preserves these elements, adding an A-list cast and rich production values that result in a film that is mostly phenomenal from start to finish.
Focus, for example, on the score by Patrick Doyle, perhaps the master of turn-of-the-century English sounds, having shown us what those tea rooms probably sounded like in Gosford Park and on Orient Express as well. His score is both playful yet classic, tense yet jocular when Green’s amusing jokes creep subtly to the surface. The tech buck does not stop there, this being a star-studded studio film and all. Paco Delgado (The Danish Girl) is brought on to dress Gadot’s exquisite figure, to make the men look lustrous, and to create ravishing suits and wedding gowns alike. Andrew Ackland-Snow (Harry Potter films) creates the sets, including the Nile steamer aboard which over 90% of the action takes place. Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, who cut Branagh’s Belfast, provides the crisp editing required to keep the audience guessing as to who the culprit may be while providing sufficient clues that you could actually figure it out if you tried super hard. In short, not one part of the below-the-line effort misses a beat.
Though it is smooth sailing for Death on the Nile, it does get into a bit of turbulence due to the calculated changes to the original plot that the filmmakers clearly decided were needed in a (likely fruitless) effort to appeal to 2022 audiences. If you know Christie’s work, you can understand why some changes may be needed. The entire conceit of her oeuvre, after all, revolves around the quintessential British fear and mistrust of foreigners, embodied by the peculiar Poirot, who is made less peculiar and less small by Branagh’s towering performance. Victorianism was stuffy, closeted. There were no LGBT characters in Christie’s work and few characters of color. Those changes are made here and are more than welcome, though they work until they do not.
There is one glaring change though, which comes about in the third act. It would be criminal to spoil it, but suffice to say that it’s hard not to conclude that the change was made due to the gender of the characters involved. This is odd. Christie may not have had a crystal ball with which to peer into 2022, but her treatment of women was way ahead of her time. Many of her plots centered on women, and she glorified the unmarried kind with her classic detective, Jane Marple. Death on the Nile itself focuses almost exclusively on female characters. All of this is to say that it is strange that the filmmakers decided an alteration was needed, one that has the effect, bizarrely enough, of demoting women from the prominent role they played in the original story, and drastically altering its conclusion. The irony is that this unnecessary change is unlikely to sell a single additional ticket, but it seriously risks alienating the film’s actual target audience — diehard Christie fans — and nearly ruined the entire movie.
That speed bump aside, Death on the Nile is an excellent retread of this well-known story. As noted earlier, Green infuses the script with doses of humor that Christie’s drier senses lacked. Branagh’s Poirot has the skeleton of the original but the actor brings his own touch to the character, which also works. Gadot and Mackey hit all the right tones, from suffering, jilted lovers, to more calculating vixens. The rest of the cast, particularly Bening and Okonedo, have a lot of fun with their characters and their various disguises. What could have been a long and tedious tale is told swiftly and interestingly, perhaps even more so than the somewhat more uneven Orient Express.
The big mystery at the end of this film is not a whodunit — Poirot obviously gets you there soon enough. The question that remains is whether there will be a third film starring Branagh’s Poirot, should audiences be willing to take this latest voyage with the character. After all, Orient Express and Death on the Nile are the two classic Christie novels that have been adapted the most times, typically successfully (the first even received a Best Picture nomination and several Oscars in 1973). Those two are, in a sense, low-hanging fruit. Other classics such as And Then There Were None, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd have for nearly a century resisted effective onscreen treatment. Will Branagh be able to crack any of those cases? I’d love to see him try…
Death on the Nile sails into theaters on Friday, Feb. 11.