Setting the tone for the film, the lascivious dance scene which pairs the disgraced Armie Hammer with both Emma Mackey and later Gal Gadot, will seem a misjudgment for any woman who has danced with a stranger. Here, Hammer’s personal woes only enhanced his role as Simon Doyle, the fiancé of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mackey) who quickly switches his affections to Jacqueline’s very wealthy aristocratic friend, Linnet Ridgeway (Gadot) in the latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile.”
Director and star Kenneth Branagh with Michael Green’s screenplay of the Agatha Christie 1937 novel eschews the slow seduction on a dance floor for a showy spectacle. No female dancer will take this as a serious depiction of dance floor seduction of first-time partners. This setup would have worked better if Linnet and Simon had something brewing the predated this musical meet up. Ordinarily, a first time partnering begins with tentative steps, the leader testing the follower. The first lift is likely waltz lift. The waltz was no longer shocking, having become fashionable during the Regency period in the UK.
The film actually begins during World War I with black and white scenes which shows how a man originally destined to become a farmer becomes much more. It also gives an explanation for Poirot’s lack of female companionship and his extravagant mustache.
In the present, Poirot is now a bit of a celebrity and he is at a bluesy dance club where the aforementioned trio are. So is jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okoneda) who is performing under the management of her niece, Rosalie Otterbourne (Letitia Wright). Rosalie is an old classmate of Linnet and has already shown that she can be assertive, demanding the manager of the jazz club present cash payment before Salome even steps on stage.
Salome sings like a woman in love who imagines her man in love with another. Isn’t that the blues? And the dancing resembles the blues style of bodies plastered against one another. No need to wait for dirty dancing of the Catskills in the early sixties. The bumping and grinding is here, but the women are all dressed up in glorious gowns. Gadot’s Linnet makes quite an entrance in a silver gown.
Six weeks later, Poirot is enjoying a perfect breakfast which is interrupted when he sees a man flying a box kite off of a pyramid. This is not just any pyramid, but one of those three royal tombs in Giza build for three different pharaohs. The man flying the kite is Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s friend.
We met Bouc in the 2017 “Murder on the Orient Express.” It was Bouc who, being the nephew of the director of the Orient Express, got Poirot on board for his return to London. Bouc saved Poirot from death (at the hand of Leslie Odom Jr.’s Dr. Arbuthnot). It was at the end of that film that a British Army messenger asks Poirot to investigate a murder on the Nile.
Now Bouc has taken up kite flying and not just any kind of kite, but the more difficult box kite which was invented in 1893. The thought of someone flying a kite off of a historic monument made me cringe, such a blithe show of British imperialism. Bouc’s mother, Euphemia (Annette Bening), is painting the Pyramids, including the figure of her son and the kite. But the portrait is not quite right. Bouc’s orange coat becomes green because someone has stolen her tube of carmine red. Euphemia is an embittered woman,
At the hotel, Poirot meets Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle. She’s newly marrying to Simon Doyle. The two are being stalked by the angry-eyed Jacqueline. Although Linnet is surrounded by friends, including her former fiancé Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand), her cousin/lawyer Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), her socialist godmother Mari Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), and Marie’s nurse/companion Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French), her lady’s maid Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie), former classmate Rosalie and Rosalie’s aunt Salome, Linnet tells Poirot, “When you have money, you never really have friends.” Linnet must also feel that diamonds are a girl’s best friend because she has a substantial rock, bought for her by Simon with her money–a present from her from herself. The necklace is white diamonds with an extremely large canary yellow diamond pendant.
Gal Gadot might not be Elizabeth Taylor, she has the on-screen charisma to pull off wearing this giant rock without looking gaudy and the necklace design is much better than the impressive blue Heart of the Ocean from the film “Titanic.” The stone has no name except temptation and it was, if I recall correctly supposedly from Tiffany’s.
While Poirot refuses Linnet and Simon’s an invitation to investigate Jacqueline because the woman scorned has committed no crime, he does speak with the angry Jacqueline. Jacqueline remembers being cast as Cleopatra in a school play, only to be relegated to playing Cleopatra’s handmaiden when the lovely Linnet arrives at the school. She does have a gun in her possession as well as lots of loot to pay for her obsession, great wardrobe and booze.
In an attempt to escape Jacqueline’s stalking, Simon buys the whole wedding party passage on the S.S. Karnak. The Karnak is a sightseeing ship with shuttered doors that encircle two levels of the ship. If you let the light in, you also allow in prying eyes.
The boat stops so that our cast of characters can visit the majestic Abu Simbel, riverside temples dedicated to Ramesses II (who had it built) and his chief wife Queen Nefertari. Ramesses II had eight royal wives. Bouc contends with his mother’s attitude toward love; he’s supported by his mum, but he’s in love with the sensible Rosalie. You know this isn’t going to end well. At Abu Simbel, someone tries to kill Simon and Linnet.
But the person behind the botched murder attempt (and willful destruction/vandalism at a historic site) is not Jacqueline. She joins them down the river with a prepaid ticket. What had been a joyful group of friends and frenemies, now becomes a claustrophobic container of murderous intentions. A murder is committed and Poirot will solve the case, but not before more murders occur.
Branagh is not my favorite Poirot. I still prefer David Suchet who played Poirot for a TV series (1989-2018). Poirot is a small man with an egg-shaped head and a fastidiousness that is a manifestation of his compulsiveness. Branagh is not a small man and his Poirot is more flamboyant and a man of action. Not that Poirot was not a man who could give chase and fire a gun; he was, after all, once a member of the police force in Belgium (Brussels).
This is a sturdy, reliable adaptation of the Agatha Christie mystery and the Gadot, Hammer and Mackey are well-suited for their roles of tragic beautiful people whom we can admire and abhor in the same instant–the fickle lover, the selfish golden girl and the vengeful friend/former fiancée. As mentioned above, this adaptation plays to a contemporary audience that has seen “Dancing with the Stars” (or the British “Strictly Come Dancing”) and isn’t that concerned with the manners of the day, but oh, the costumes! Gadot’s and Mackey’s clothes are to die for.
This is a respectful adaptation; none of the snark and eye-winking of “Knives Out,” but the British imperialism almost challenges one to make a parody from the eyes of Egyptians.
“Death on the Nile” is a celebration of British imperialism (made truly glorious with CGI overhead shots), the glamor of the 1930s and of the tradition of British murder mysteries. It embraces diversity to a degree not always present in previous renditions. “Death on the Nile” remains to the original story while adding embellishments of its own and Branagh seems intent on expanding the inner world of Poirot. Will we see an Inspector Japp or a Captain Arthur Hastings? We’ll have to wait and see.
“Death on the Nile” will be released on 11 February 2022. It was delayed from its original release date of 20 December 2019 due to COVID-19 and the allegations against Hammer.