Too Much Death On The Nile
I have only my geekiness to blame. I should never have compared the three versions of Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’. The novel was vintage Christie, combining the whodunnit with the author’s love of Egyptian antiquities to good effect. It’s also a key example of Christie misdirection, a classically constructed prestige concealed by shifting your loyalties to the wrong characters.
John Guillermin, the director of arguably the biggest blockbuster of the seventies, ‘The Towering Inferno’, directed the film version with an astounding cast. Seeing Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury with David Niven, Mia Farrow and Simon MacCorkindale was a joy to begin with, but the location work, coupled with a perfect score by Fellini’s composer Nino Rota made for a brilliant film version.
If one thing let it down a little, it was Peter Ustinov, never much of an actor, playing Poirot as a collection of mannerisms and not much else. Poirot is not the focus here, however, and Guillermin understands what makes Christie work; the rug-pull, which comes as a genuine shock. The film was made with help from the government because there were so many Egyptian Agatha Christie fans.
And so to Kenneth Branagh’s reboot, presumably made because the studio copyright covers this and ‘Orient Express’. Much delayed by the pandemic and bizarre social media shenanigans, the film arrives on streaming services pretty much dead in the water.
The CGI Egypt is slick and stylish if clichéd, the wardrobe appropriately elaborate (the earlier version won an Oscar for Best Costume Design) and the casting more inclusive, with Sophie Okonedo particularly good as a jazz singer (although her two numbers slow the action). The ‘Karnak’ paddle steamer is stunningly recreated, its bevelled glass panels reminiscent of the sets for Branagh’s ‘Hamlet’.
There ends the good news.
Branagh is always eager to please, so he ramps up every element. Performances are broad, an extra murder and other crimes are thrown in to muddy the solution and Poirot’s ridiculous moustache gets its own pre-credit origin story in a sequence that appears to have been lifted from the French drama ‘Au Revoir Là-Haut’. But attempts to give Poirot a human face backfire badly, and the film’s deliberate old-fashionedness is ill-matched by anachronistic behaviour.
This is ‘Carry On up the Nile’, downgraded from film stars to TV stars, with Russell Brand and French and Saunders replacing Davis, Smith, Lansbury et al. All sense of danger or unease has been removed. Worse is a bizarre twerking dancefloor scene between Emma Mackey and Armie Hammer that feels absurdly inappropriate to the period. Patrick Doyle, a composer who has never knowingly produced a memorable score, does it again, and Poirot’s final scene attempts to build him up for a sequel which we must pray never comes. Stick with Bette Davis spitting, ‘This boat is becoming a mortuary!’