In the whodunnit genre few names loom larger than Agatha Christie. The author of 66 novels and 14 short story collections was known as the Mistress of Mystery and holds a Guinness World Record as the best-selling fiction writer of all time.
Her books are the fuel for countless stage plays, television shows and movies, but the spark that make the novels so entertaining often goes missing in translation.
It speaks volumes that the best Christie movie of late, “Knives Out,” isn’t an adaptation of her work. It borrows the mechanics of her best stories, including the climatic singling out of the murderer in a roomful of suspects, to make the most enjoyable movie tribute to her style in years and that includes Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 thriller “Murder on the Orient Express,” which is actually based on a Christie classic.
The director takes a second kick at the Christie can with “Death on the Nile,” an adaptation of the writer’s best-selling 1937 mystery of jealousy, wealth and death.
The film begins with a flashback to World War I and the origin of Belgian soldier Hercule Poirot’s (Branagh) flamboyant moustache.
Cut to 1937. Poirot, now a world-renowned detective, is on vacation in Egypt aboard the lavishly appointed ship S.S. Karnak. Also aboard are heiress Linnet (Gal Gadot) and her new husband Simon (Armie Hammer), a glamourous, honeymooning couple cruising the Nile in an effort to hide from the jealous Jacqueline (Emma Mackey), who happens to be Linnet’s jealous former friend and Simon’s ex-lover. Jacqueline has other plans, however, and comes along for the ride. “It’s indecent,” says Simon. “She’s making a fool of herself.”
Linnet fears that Jacqueline is up to no good and reaches out to Poirot to look out for her safety on the ship. “Maybe Jacqueline hasn’t committed a crime yet,” she says, “but she will. She always settles her scores.”
When Linnet turns up dead, Jacqueline is the obvious suspect, but she has a rock-solid alibi.
So who could the killer be? Is it Linnet’s former fiancé Linus Windlesham (a very subdued Russell Brand)? Jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo)? Maybe it’s Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), Linnet’s Communist godmother or Rosalie Otterbourne (Letitia Wright) Linnet’s old classmate.
Only one person can get to the bottom of the matter. “I am Detective Hercule Poirot and I will deliver your killer.”
“He’s a bloodhound,” says Rosalie, “so let him sniff.”
“Death on the Nile” has an old-fashioned Hollywood epic feel to it. There’s glamour, beautiful costumes and even more beautiful people set against an exotic backdrop shot with sweeping, expensive looking crane shots over CGI pyramids. There are, as they used to say, more stars than there are in the heavens populating the screen and a knotty mystery that only Poirot can untie.
It also feels old fashioned in its storytelling. Branagh takes his time setting the scene, adding in two prologues before landing in Egypt. It takes almost an hour to get to the sleuthing and the weaving together of the clues and the characters. The leisurely pace sucks much of the immediacy out of the story, and despite all the moving parts, the mystery isn’t particularly intriguing.
More intriguing is Branagh’s take on Poirot. On film the detective has often been played as the object of fun, and while the character’s ego, persnickety personality and quirky moustache are very much on display, but here he is a serious man, heartbroken and brimming with regret. We learn how the death of a loved one changed him, turning him into the man we see today. It’s a new take on the crime solver that breathes some new life into the character’s lungs.
Then there is the pyramid in the room. Yes, Armie Hammer, the bland slab of a leading man, has a large role in the action. He is so interwoven into the movie that he couldn’t be cut out, à la Kevin Spacey in “All the Money in the World,” despite his recent scandals. At any rate, despite having one of the larger roles, he doesn’t make much of an impression.
“Death on the Nile’s” high style and all-star murder mystery may please Agatha Christie aficionados but it could use a little more of the “Knives Out” vibe to make it feel less old fashioned and conventional.