Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot is back, with a broken heart
Love is fatal in Kenneth Branagh’s hip-to-be-square Death on the Nile, a romancing adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 whodunnit which wears its fandom sincerely, if not faithfully. This second film version, following the fussy but fun 1978 movie, updates the book’s murderous connivings and multiplies its amorous yearnings while preserving the author’s signature homicidal convolutions. It also revels in an extravagant 1930s aesthetic that’s proudly over-the-top and—swaddled in CGI surroundings due to being shot primarily in England—weirdly untethered to reality.
Branagh continues in his revival of the once-storied-now-hoary mystery character Hercule Poirot, the amusingly fastidious detective with a nose for killers and a mustache for the ages. The filmmaker re-introduced the eccentric euro-sleuth when he wrote, directed, and starred as Poirot in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, giving his upper lip the most alarmingly outrageous caterpillar-thick hair sculpture in movie history: a hirsute monstrosity somewhere between a mutton chop and a mink stole. Poirot stans, rejoice: Branagh even creates a ’stache origin story involving the battle of the Yser that makes the famous Belgian even more insanely patriotic.
DEATH ON THE NILE ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright
Running time: 127 mins
In his retelling, Branagh’s Poirot is a wounded soul with a broken heart doomed to his obsessive-compulsive predilection for symmetry and sweets. “Ah, love,” he croaks. “It’s not safe.” At a London nightclub, he silently watches some dancefloor drama: fiery redhead Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) gets jiggy with her finacé, engorged stallion Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). They slow-grind and dry-hump until Jacqueline’s old chum, golden-lady heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) enters the room and falls hard for the boytoy.
Six weeks later, after a whirlwind romance, Linnet and Simon are celebrating their nuptials in Egypt. Poirot conveniently happens to be there on holiday, and joins a gaggle of invited guests that include Linnet’s nearest and dearest—all of whose devotion is specious. Crashing the party is spurned lover Jacqueline, brazenly stalking the couple and packing a .22 caliber in her purse.
The newlyweds quickly pivot their plans and, hoping to escape Jacqueline, turn the party into a cruise down the Nile. So everyone loads up their Louis Vuitton steamer trunks and piles onto the Karnak—a luxurious riverboat already loaded down with caviar, truffles, king crabs, and champagne. And when Jacqueline weasels her way on board, the paranoid heiress asks Poirot to keep an eye on the situation. “When you have money,” she glumly confesses, “no one is ever really your friend.” Famous last words, naturally, since Linnet soon ends up dead in her bed with a bullet in the head.
The case begins! Poirot cross-examines the boat-confined cavalcade of suspects. Jaded jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright). Linnet’s moneyed-but-communist-sympathizing godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her “lady companion” Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French). Plus Bouc (Tom Bateman), Branagh’s close friend, as well as Bouc’s cynical mother Euphemia (Annette Bening). There are a few others, too, if you can believe it, and one of them is comedian Russell Brand in a dramatic role that proves he’s completely forgettable when he’s not funny.
Poirot gets to work, peeling back layer after layer of compromised relationships and jilted emotions. His keen powers of deduction and personal quirks prompt someone to call him a little freak. “He accuses everyone of murder!” says a rattled passenger. For good reason, since another corpse appears. And another.
What makes this Poirot more engaging than most is how Branagh humanizes him with tongue in cheek and heart on sleeve. He cautiously, clumsily flirts with Otterbourne, getting flustered when he compliments “ze bluesy music” she plays. He can’t hold his alcohol and obsessively lays out his socks and ties in neat rows on his bed. He’s an uptight sad sack who secretly needs a hug. “I was going to be a farmer!” he sobs in a boozy confessional.
The film is a luxurious exercise in peak-of-chic Art Deco interiors and Egyptological sightseeing exteriors, from the pyramids of Giza to the tomb of Ramses II in the temples at Abu Simbel. Branagh turns the quietly luxe real-life Cataract Hotel into an over-the-top computer-enhanced knockoff of the Taj Mahal, and supersizes a plot point involving a string of pearls so it now involves a $2 million diamond necklace from Tiffany. And screenwriter Michael Green adds some lively, if too-clever, wordplay to the world-weary dialogue. ‘I’ve had a handful of husbands,” sighs Salome. “Each a handful.” Those who love extra-twisty murder mysteries with a dollop of ennui will swoon. Others might just dismiss the film’s excesses with a chuckle and an eyeroll.
Oh, and Armie Hammer is allegedly a cannibal. Which, for some rubbernecking haters, might give this proudly conventional thriller an outré edge that they will find quickly dulled by the fallen actor’s generic charisma.