Four and a half years ago I signed up for author permissions specifically to rant about Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, now after several delays we get his follow up with Death on the Nile, so has he managed to correct any of the flaws that permeated through the first attempt?
(Note: Im going to try and keep this spoiler-lite, but there may be some vague discussions of points from both the movie and the original novel. If you haven’t read the novel yet, do so its great, and make sure you check out Marlowes excellent write-up of the (far superior) TV version of this story.)
Throughout Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express one got a feeling that he never really understood the character of Hercule Poirot, he turned him in to a bundle of ego and OCD who seemed to lack social skills, and right from the start he opens Death on the Nile with… an origin story for Poirots mustache. I mean its not just about the mustache, it has Poirot as a farmer(!) in the opening days of WW1 in October 1914 who helps his unit get through a gas attack(!!)1, only to be injured in the face so he grows the mustache at the request of his fiancee(!!!) and to emulate his late captain. As both a fan of Poirot and history every thing about that sentence hurts me to type. Were 5 minutes in and all weve done is prove Branagh still has never read a Christie book, great start!
The next scene takes us to an upscale nightclub, combing the first two scenes from the book, where Poirot shows up to eat dinner while introducing us to young couple in love Jacqueline Belfort (Emma Mackey) and Simon Doyle (Arnie Hammer) who are grinding(!) to swing jazz music played by an African-American(!!) on her electric guitar(!!!) and oh for fucks sake Branagh, I need to go lie down…
Right, were back. So Jacqueline’s friend Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) shows up to congratulate the two on getting engaged and to offer Simon a job as a wedding present, but after meeting with him we cut to 6 weeks later with Linnet and Simon now being married in Egypt. Jacqueline, scorned and bitter, follows them and as the wedding party full of Linnet’s friends takes a cruise down the Nile circumstances bring a vacationing Poirot on board only for Linnet to be murdered and Poirot needing to unmask which one of her acquaintances is responsible. Book readers should have already picked up on (yet another) red flag- everyone on the Karnak is a friend or relative of Linnet’s there at her invitation. This is a major discrepancy, the book has a group of mostly strangers who pointedly dont trust each other as they all have their own secrets to hide, or people there by “coincidence” hiding ulterior motives; by making them all there intentionally it guts a lot of the mystery and renders the secrets somewhat limp- the person who is secretly a noble has been changed to someone else robbing that revelation of any impact since they no longer have any reason to be hiding it; while they bring in Buoc from Murder to fill in the Tim Allerton role.
Lets get positive though. A major fault against Murder was that Branagh tried to infuse it with all flash and bright colors which do not fit that story at all. For the most part, the more uptempo action works better with this story as do the colors. Sadly thats almost where the positives end, as the actual directing and cinematography is incredibly flat. Frequently characters are blocked so that they are close up in the very center of the camera, not offset to one of the thirds, or has the vantage point hanging back outside of a room while characters are half obscured by windows. Its wildly distracting, and is the kind of thing which would have got me points off in my high school video production class. In general the films flow seems to not understand how to convey a mystery, stuff just happens and is either forgotten about or lurches ahead to another point without giving you time to think about why it matters. When Poirot is doing his interviews almost all of them are done solely to reach points he already knows the answer to and frequently have no bearing on the crime, so why was he doing them? Even the denouement comes out of nowhere, he suddenly declares he knows the answer based on evidence he had for a while at that point, without relying on any actual results of his other investigations. My biggest knock against the book is that it partly relies on a massive contrivance to reveal the true scheme, but at least that was only one piece and his other investigating actually matters.
Ok, so neither the writing or directing could qualify as competent for a procedural TV show, what about the cast- after all the greatest strength of mystery stories is the characters with Linnet Ridgeway in particular being a standout as one of the most virtuous victims in a Christie story, a 20-year old heiress who’s intelligent, not that concerned with her own wealth and generally good natured that wants to try and help everyone. Gal Gadot is none of those things. The movie never says her age directly, though there is some implication she is still supposed to be 20 (not that it ever touches on why her age matters) which, even by Hollywood standards, no one is believing Gal Gadot is that young. Moreover, her Linnet is arrogant, mean, extravagant, and frequently cruel to others; when they recount the story of her interfering with her maids marriage its not a matter of Linnet thinking shes helping her maid, instead its portrayed as her mockingly telling the maid how the guy never loved her in the first place. The one member of the cast who acquits themselves well is, of all people, Russel Brand. He plays against type as Linnet’s former fiancee, a quiet doctor who seems to exude restrained despondent regret over losing her with every little action.
Which brings us to a major theme throughout everything in this story- love. The book sees Poirot pointedly letting a petty thief go in order to be with a girl as long as he agrees to stop stealing; while the other characters all have varying opinions on relationships with the end resulting in multiple people as couples showing the optimism of being in love. The movie on the other hand has a cynical, bitter view that love makes people in to fools who either hurt everyone around them and/or torment themselves for years after losing love to no avail. If I didn’t know better I’d almost think someone had actually read the book with how completely opposite the books message they manage to land.
Look Kenneth Branagh, Im not sure why you are so insistent on trying to make these books in to movies when you clearly have no affection for them. Please, PLEASE, do us all a favor and let someone else take them over- or better yet just have people watch the Suchet or Ustinov versions.