I begin with a lament. The composer of the film score, Scotland’s Patrick Doyle, a creator of prodigious output who really ought to be lauded as our national composer, has manufactured a low, deep insistent growl for the tense murder scenes, for which there are many. To my ear it sounds as if someone is strumming the strings on a concert piano with a fiddle bow. I stand to be corrected, his sublime, sweeping melody depicting the expanses of desert and river is squandered, used over the credit sequence and rarely for any length over the action. When it plays it lifts you bird-like up and over the sweltering heat of Egypt’s panoramas, pyramids, Sphinx, the great statues of Abu Simbel, river-edged white mud bricked cities, and the undulating hills of desert itself. It spells romance and skulduggery. It does what cinema is supposed to do, it transports you. But what a waste of a fine tune. Purchasing the score is the only answer to appreciating one of his best melodies.
The director and star, Kenneth Branagh, intersperses Doyle’s malevolent motif with scenes in 1937 jazz clubs playing jive hopping dance numbers and the occasional blues ballad, our hero Hercule Poirot remote at a table on his own in a place one would not normally associate him unless called into investigate a dastardly slaying. The counterpoint sometimes works, and sometimes clashes, destroying the mood built up one location to the next and back again. The mind plays tricks, is this a pastiche of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca? Why not have given Doyle all the music to compose keeping the work stylistically consistent? Maurice Jarre managed it in Lawrence of Arabia while incorporating an existing military march.
Death on the Nile begins with a spurious black and white scene in the muddy Ypres trenches, a young Poirot providing a safe way to attack the enemy. He succeeds, winning the plaudits of his comrades-in-arms and commanding officer. It tells us two things, his “little grey cells” are smarter than the average soldier’s, and the event brought about the reason he acquired his odd two-layered moustache. Why not just reduce the eccentric shape of the moustache and dispense with its origin? Do we need to see Salvador Dali waxing his brand image in front of a mirror to accept his moustache was a well-studied conceit? The war sequence is an indulgence. I would rather have had the time used for the music played as an overture to curtain up and to take us emotionally into the film.
Beyond the odd start, the budget has been spent on things designed to seduce the eye, well tailored and very British costumes, a magnificent white paddle steamer, the ‘Karnak’, on which the latter half of the movie depends for its murders, plenty of fast moving cuts between locations, overhead drone shots that will rock those with no facility for heights, and underwater angles of anchors dropping and rising. In look and morals of the day, the loosening of Edwardian values, it is indeed, an Art Deco feast for the eyes and the spirit. And yet for all its slickness, for all Branagh’s attempts to keep the plot moving forward, the story is told in a somewhat disjointed fashion. I think the cause might include a reliance on taking us out of a scene, glide over the top of a pyramid free as a feather, for no apparent reason, and drop down into the physical confines of a new scene. Once or twice is fine, the rest is padding.
The second problem is a certain lack of cohesion between the disparate travellers, and a contrived romance between a chanteuse and Poirot himself that we know will be repressed by both involved and rejected. After all, if consummated, where does a wife go in the next Poirot investigation – to a nunnery or become a stay-at-home bored wife stuffing her face with chocolates and showering human love on her pet Belgian Malinous while Poirot is abroad on police work?
I am grateful for Branagh’s obvious affection for his material, his eye for detail, and that he made up his mind to shoot an old fashioned melodrama in the Agatha Christie genre we have grown to welcome and of which she would have approved, or much of it. The multiple deaths, however, make it more of a Mafia hit and run assassination story than a whodunit mystery, unravelled in the last reel. (There’s an old-fashioned expression for you – reel.) Without posting a spoiler, the deaths on a bar stool are, quite frankly, physically comical; you wait for one character to slip to the floor flat on their face but who manages, against the law of gravity, to stay resolutely attached to the high chair and partner. What was wrong with not seeing the suicide, merely hearing a shot? Some things are better left to the cinemagoer’s imagination. It would not be a surprise told the death scene was one of a few considered.
Those suspect line-up shots come in handy for the viewer too, since there are a lot of characters to keep track of, which keep us wondering what any have in common and why don’t they tire of each other’s company. Poirot is hired by wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), and her new husband Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), to observe and protect their nuptial festivities from Simon’s jealous ex-fiancée, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Sex Education’s Emma Mackey).
The newlyweds and their guests try to escape Jacqueline’s stalking habits by fleeing to a luxurious riverboat cruise, but in classic Agatha Christie fashion, one of their number is killed shortly after departure. The central lovers are not helped by Hammer’s lack of charisma; could this pasty-faced charlatan really be a sexually attractive bounder who jilts one woman for the bed of another, an heiress, and she falls for it, as if changing handkerchiefs in his top pocket? I could not detect the chemistry.
Branagh installs lots of clever chilling moments, a dead body slapped repeatedly against an underwater window by the riverboat’s wheel, and his Poirot enjoying a proper tea in front of the Sphinx disturbed by the sight of a green kite flying behind, but they seem gifted only momentarily before taken away for ordinary staging.
The film belongs to Branagh, not just for the success and flaws in his vision, but because he gives Poirot just the right amount of phycological depth, a seriously welcome development from his first outing as the mannered Belgian detective in Murder on the Orient Express. This Poirot has a backstory, and even if some of it is cod psychology it is movie acting of a high standard, Branagh injects enough depth to have us believe Poirot’s inability to invite physical contact is a hangover from a disturbing experience in his youth, and his fastidiousness right down to arranging his morning eggs and knife and fork a certain way on the breakfast table are quite justified. Branagh has grown into the part. Considering the good and the average reminded me that he tends to re-envisage films others directed before him, which motivates me to see his Oscar nominated Belfast, an original work.
As for his cast, none quite reach the depths of Branagh’s interpretation, and our best female comics Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, as rich American and much put-upon companion look out of place and never quite deliver the humorous moments we thought they would. Russell Brand as a lonesome dope is just a face behind a beard. It all looks as if a bit of a holiday for likeable thespians. That cannot be Branagh’s fault. As I have had past reason to explain, Christie was a master at mystery plots and terrible at characterisation. But for all that, you leave the cinema well entertained.
For my part, the film, the third interpretation I have seen making me feel as old as the pyramids, had me hanker for the chance to see the pharaoh’s palaces before I pass on. We use Emjos as the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics, a simplified version.
- Star Rating: Three and a half stars
- Cast: Armie Hammer, Gal Gadot, Letitia Wright, Annette Bening, Tom Bateman
- Director: Kenneth Branagh
- Writer: Michael Green, from the book by Agatha Christie
- Cinematographer: Haris Zambarloukos
- Composer: Patrick Doyle
- Family Rating: 12A
- Duration: 2 hours 7 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?