Agatha Christie adaptations, for obvious reasons, work best for audiences who haven’t read her books – though, with this paradox in mind, things have to be added to film or TV versions of her spare mysteries to so they’re at least watchable for people who know whodunit going in. The 1970s run of adaptations that began with Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express became a mini-franchise by stressing disaster movie-style all-star casting (the sort of films which have a row of inset portraits across the bottom of the poster), luxurious period settings with an emphasis on the costumes and décor associated with the murderous and idle rich (and thus a tendency to pick on the books set on exotic holidays rather than in drab villages), and dialogue salted with a kind of bitchy sub-Noel Coward wit not found in the books. Kenneth Branagh’s unexpectedly successful remake of Murder on the Orient Express not only used the book Lumet did but copied its general approach, and now the obvious has not been resisted by following it up Death on the Nile, just as producer John Brabourne did in the 1970s. So now there’s an added issue in that it’s not just people who’ve read the books who know how the plot works out, since the Poirot movies with Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov have been Bank Holiday TV perennials for decades … not to mention that the whole canon has been done with David Suchet, in versions Christie purists tend to prefer.
So here’s another carriage trade whodunit with Branagh directing and starring. Screenwriter Michael Green tries to personalise things (we get a whole black and white origin story for Poirot’s moustache) and suggest that this case will shake the detective out of his detachment and turn him to mush as the case extends from puzzle to personal tragedy and then a possible love story. The stab at depth somewhat undermines the fun and throwing in an extra murder with added clues and motives and shocks proves that Billy Wilder (who adapted Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution) was right to say that you could change everything about her work except for the plots – the home stretch of this voyage trips over the tipped-in material. As in the Orient Express film, we get the typical gathering-the-suspects interviews and chats but also a lot of sweeping, showoff camerawork that suggests movement even when things are deeply static … plus a couple of action/chase scenes as Poirot turns Jason Bourne for a bit, pursuing a baddie whose face the camera never catches in a manner that suggests the world’s greatest sleuth and observer of people can’t recognise someone they know from behind. We also get a bit of peril on crumbling ancient Egyptian sites, and – in a tiny nice bit of business – corpses carried off the barge wrapped like mummies.
As a long, lavish matinee movie, there are inevitable incidental pleasures of performance. Tom Batemen’s Bouc, held over from the earlier movie and replacing Christie’s David Niven type Colonel Race, is a welcome comic turn, though Green ill-serves the character with some imbecile plot add-ons … Gal Gadot is elegantly murderable as the hostess everyone has good reason to kill, with one tiny fillip later on as Poirot realises the guest list must have been put together by someone who wanted to litter the boat with red herring suspects … Sophie Okonedo and Letitia Wright enjoy themselves as a blues diva and her daughter/manager, though there’s a mid-film switch from the current trend of depicting a fantasy 1937 where a British aristo’s only objection to her son marrying a character played by Letitia Wright is that she’s an American as race suddenly does become a plot factor before going away again … and various forms of daffiness, dottiness and suspect behaviour come from Annette Bening, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Ali Fazal and (against all odds delivering the most honest performance in the film) Russell Brand … while Armie Hammer is a handsome plank with a moustache, ie: a serviceable substitute for Simon MacCorkindale. Branagh’s Poirot is given a hard time by a lot of people he’s just accused of murder in what seem a lot like fishing expeditions, and is much better at the tiny self-aware jokes or silly accent bits a la Ustinov than he is when the film stretches and strains to understand his inner pain, literalised as scars under the ‘tache.