Kenneth Branagh’s second appearance as Hercule Poirot, the eccentric private eye of Agatha Christie, has finally arrived after MANY, MANY, MANY delays. As “Death on the Nile” has a cast that includes at least one actor who seems to be… let’s just say not fantastic, Bob, the publicity building up to the film could not have been worse. Naturally, there were requests to reshoot the film, but Disney would not be enthusiastic about incurring that kind of additional expenditure for such a massive production, shot on 65mm with an all-star ensemble. Additionally, Branagh was working on a completely other film called “Belfast” in the interim, which just so happened to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.
However, “Death on the Nile” is now available, and despite our less than favourable assessment, I was really happy with Branagh’s second dive into the glitzy whodunit. He is more adept at bringing out the humorous idiosyncrasies and underlying sadness of the Poirot persona. Haris Zambarloukos’ 65mm photography, which has gleamed and shone since 2007’s “Sleuth,” has been Branagh’s go-to cinematographer, matches the actor’s wonderfully over-the-top tone, which he has comfortably perfected over the years. With the exception of the troublesome cast members, the ensemble still features many outstanding actors portraying huge, broad, and enjoyable roles. In my opinion, it’s a hoot and a half.
Of course, a fantastic reveal is necessary for any whodunnit to be truly enjoyable. An essential component of the Agatha Christie structure is the conclusion, where Poirot enters and precisely explains the circumstances around the principal murder. It’s always exciting to see someone perform their profession effectively, and Poirot considers himself the world’s greatest detective. While in most whodunnits, the “who” is crucial, in “Death on the Nile,” the “why” is what makes the story compelling given how it relates to the main character.
Love Is a Battlefield
In most murder mysteries, either love or money will be the driving force behind the crime. Because they are such brilliant and simple concepts, they are enduring pillars of the genre. For the person they love or in an effort to amass more cash, many people are willing to go to any lengths. Both of those concepts are addressed in “Death on the Nile.” Gal Gadot’s Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle, an heiress spending her honeymoon in Egypt with her new husband, Simon Doyle, becomes the movie’s first victim (Armie Hammer). A cast of family and friends who attended their recent wedding with them also become suspects. Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), Simon’s former fiancée and Linnet’s former friend who has turned into a ferociously jealous stalker, is the obvious first suspect. However, she was rendered unconscious after being given a significant dose of morphine after shooting Simon in the leg and nearly shooting herself. Could it be Russell Brand, Linnet’s dumped ex-boyfriend? Or perhaps Ali Fazal, the lawyer cousin, is eager to inherit some money? Or another one of the numerous passengers?
Hammer’s Simon, a destitute man who married Linnet for her wealth, turns out to be Linnet’s murderer. However, he is not acting alone; he is still deeply in love with Mackey’s Jacqueline, and together they have planned the entire charade of the envious ex-lover to raise suspicions when it is impossible that she is the murderer. When Linnet’s maid Louise (Rose Leslie) sees Simon leaving Linnet’s room after the murder, trouble ensues. Jacqueline attempts to buy Louise’s silence by offering her money, but Louise refuses and is killed as a result. Bouc (Tom Bateman), a close friend and confidant of Poirot, witnesses the murder and is later killed. Quite a few people died in this one. Jacqueline is unable to accept the idea that the two will be split up following their eventual arrests after Poirot reveals the entire plan. She encircles Simon and shoots him in the back while making sure the bullet passes through him and kills both of them.
So, we get one murder for money and two for love or really four if you count that final murder/suicide. Money may have been the first reason, but love is the motive that truly grabs ahold. The filmography of Kenneth Branagh is filled with high emotions and grand gestures, and love typically brings out those extravagant impulses. Think of the finale to his adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” where the final shot is thiselaborate long takethat basically shows a whole town dancing and singing in delight at the prospect of love. The power of that emotion makes people do the most dramatic things in this case, kill a bunch of people. But Simon and Jacqueline are nowhere near the only characters in “Death on the Nile” grappling with intense love.
Who Do You Love?
The other key romance of the film is between Tom Bateman’s Bouc andLetitia Wright’s Rosalie Otterbourne. Rosalie was a classmate and friend of Linnet and serves as the business manager for her aunt Salome (Sophie Okonedo), a blues and jazz singer. The two have been in love for quite some time, much to the disdain of Bouc’s mother and benefactor Euphemia (Annette Bening). She’s had so many bad experiences with potential partners that she rejects the entire idea outright. While initially claiming to be on vacation, Poirot’s actual reason for being in Egypt to be a part of all this was because he was hired by Euphemia to investigate Rosalie for any potential defects in her life and personality. Even when he reveals he has found none and confirms she is quite a catch, Euphemia still cannot accept her as suitable.
This dilemma gets at the sadly ever-present question of who society allows you to love. While Bouc believes the reason for his mother’s objections to Rosalie are based on class and that she is American, the unspoken truth of the matter is that she is Black, and this film takes place in the 1930s. Euphemia has Poirot check Rosalie’s accounts and money management to see if she is an honest person which, you know, is what a racist would do. Plus, her not budging one inch when learning about Rosalie’s true character only reinforces her prejudice even more. Thankfully, Rosalie is given the space to be rightly horrified and offended at the whole investigation, because it deserves that kind of scorn.
This is not the only “forbidden” relationship in the film, either. Linnet’s godmother, Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), and her nurse, Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French), are a lesbian couple who have to keep their relationship a secret due to the social mores of the time. They have to settle for being an employer/employee relationship in public settings, with their codependent doting being seen as constant health treatment. Their love motivates all of their actions and behaviors in the film, as does Bouc and Rosalie. Even Euphemia, however wrongheaded, still comes from a place of a mother’s love for her son.
The Man Behind the Mustache
Then there’s Branagh’s Poirot. He is a man who knows the power of love and has tried desperately for years to suppress it. As we learned in “Murder on the Orient Express,” Poirot keeps a photo of his deceased love, Katherine. “Death on the Nile” opens with a prologue (in gorgeous black and white that actually looks better than anything in “Belfast”) showing a young, clean-shaven Poirot is in the trenches of World War I and deduces the perfect ambush attack on the enemy soldiers. While the sneak attack does work and saves his troop, he cannot save his commanding officer who accidentally activates a trip wire bomb that leaves him dead and Poirot’s face scarred. Recovering in the army hospital, he receives a visit from Katherine, played by Susannah Fielding, and even though he is horrified by the scars on his face, she merely suggests growing a mustache. That’s right: The reason Poirot has that giant, ridiculous thing on his face is in tribute to his beloved dead wife. He also feels partially responsible for Katherine’s death, as she died in a train accident on her way to come see him at the hospital for Christmas. Since then, he has stuck to the notion that he has loved enough for one lifetime and will focus solely on his detective work.
So, when he meets Sophie Okonedo’s Salome Otterbourne, it surprises him how taken he is with her music, her strength, and her beauty. While society has put a damper on the other relationships in the film, the only thing holding back this one from happening is Poirot himself. I mean, the man has a picture of his wife within arm’s reach at all times and wears a tribute to her on his face as a constant reminder. When he tries to verbalize his feelings to Salome, he can barely get out two words before sinking back into himself. It is incredibly sad to see a man who knows how love enriches life not be able to let himself give into it. The people he loves die, be it Katherine or his friend Bouc.
While the resolution to the whodunnit would usually be the finale of the story, the actual ending to “Death on the Nile” is entirely focused on Poirot’s progression in accepting love. We see him six months after the central story, entering an empty London jazz club just before closing time. Salome is performing, and Poirot watches her in awe. However, he has shaved off his mustache, letting his facial scars show proudly. It’s a surprisingly beautiful and moving ending. Branagh films the entirety of the scene with stage spotlights, putting the entire situation in a heightened state of style that feels like classic Hollywood. Even with all of Poirot’s quirks and eccentricities, Branagh has truly made us care for this man and his pain, and seeing this finale is such a satisfying release from that.
Did They Have Enough Champagne to Fill the Nile?
Look, I know all this stuff about Kenneth Branagh’s ideas of the power of love and how it affects our lives is not what you came here for. What you all have been waiting for is the tantalizing question posed in the film’strailer. Does the Karnak actually have enough champagne aboard to fill the Nile River? Considering the river has about79 billion gallonsflow through it per day, it is highly unlikely one luxury boat could carry that much champagne without sinking and drowning everyone aboard. So, no. They don’t. Gal Gadot lied.
“Death on the Nile” is in theaters now.