The latest film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel Death on the Nile (★★☆☆☆) miscalculates from the start, marching into a mystery Christie herself showed no interest in exploring: the origins of Hercule Poirot’s trademark mustache.
Director and star Kenneth Branagh, helming his second Christie adaptation following the 2017 hit Murder on the Orient Express, digs into a black-and-white, WWI-set prologue that firmly establishes Belgian sleuth Poirot as the film’s romantic hero.
Christie’s sturdy plots and colorful characters certainly invite inventive reinterpretation, but it feels misguided making this or any Poirot story more about the man solving the mystery, than about the mystery that Poirot must solve.
The sprightlier 1978 version of Death on the Nile, directed by John Guillermin and scripted by Sleuth playwright Anthony Shaffer, struck a more satisfying balance between the famous detective and the cast of suspects all harboring motives for murder.
That whodunnit boasted a lineup of eccentric legends — Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, David Niven, and, of course, Peter Ustinov as Poirot — inhabiting Dame Agatha’s larger-than-life characters while swooning about in Anthony Powell’s Oscar-winning ’30s-era costumes.
The result was gloriously camp, as much as it was wickedly intriguing. Breathtaking locations on and along the Nile provided immeasurable atmosphere, and Mia Farrow supplied livewire intensity as Jackie Bellefort, a socialite jilted by her fiancé Simon for her best friend Linnet.
Branagh takes many liberties with the novel’s narrative, but sticks with the central plot of unstable Jackie stalking newlyweds Simon and Linnet all over Egypt during their honeymoon.
However, while the earlier film had Farrow pulsating with wide-eyed madness as Jackie pops up on the steps of pyramids to ruin Simon and Linnet’s happiness, this flat-footed update offers Emma Mackey, whose performance as Jackie neither pulsates nor intrigues.
The same might be said of Gal Gadot’s Linnet, the heiress who steals her best friend’s man, then considers herself the victim in the scenario. Linnet doesn’t foresee herself as a murder victim, but it so happens that any number of the fellow passengers traveling with her and Simon on a steamboat cruise up the Nile could imagine killing her.
When shots are finally fired, and a dead body discovered, Poirot, also aboard the cruise, enlists the aid of his young friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, reprising his role from Orient Express) to help solve the crime.
Tracing the web of motives and possibilities, Poirot and his sidekick uncover myriad secret liaisons and deep-rooted resentments — but the film, to its detriment, leans into the melodrama of the circumstances, rather than the suspense.
Case in point, Branagh wraps up Poirot’s investigation with a lengthy, tearful monologue that pulls focus from the tale’s shocking resolution, in favor of resolving Poirot’s backstory. To that end, attempts to drum up an air of romance between Poirot and jazz singer Salome Otterbourne, played by Sophie Okonedo, don’t get off the ground, either.
Poirot is meant to be fascinated by this bluesy, ballsy, glamorous Black woman but doesn’t really know what to say to her, or how to act around her. That tracks, given the leaden squareness of the pair of jazz-infused musical numbers built around Salome’s performances. Scenes intended to evoke some steamy, after-hours nightclub appear to have been shot in an overlit barn.
Atmosphere is not a strong point here, as, instead of cruising down the Nile, the film offers sweeping shots of CGI landscapes, and green-screen backdrops standing in for Egyptian vistas and pyramids. Lacking the visual splendor of Egypt’s natural wonders, and the undeniable charisma of that 1978 cast, this Death on the Nile dies slowly on the vine.
Death on the Nile opens in theaters everywhere Friday, Feb. 11. Visit www.fandango.com.
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