Friday, February 11, 2022


Opening only (and worth seeing in) the multiplexes this weekend...

Death on the Nile--The prologue to Kenneth Branagh's sumptuous new adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1937 novel offers us some backstory on an iconic element of Hercule Poirot's image. It's very much like an origin story in a superhero movie.

It's hard to say how much this episode will be to the liking of hardcore Christie purists, just as it was hard to say how such enthusiasts would feel about Branagh's previous outing as the vain, dapper, extravagantly mustachioed Belgian super-sleuth with the OCD tendencies and the potent "little gray cells"; in 2017 he directed and starred in a flashy Murder on the Orient Express. Now Poirot is cruising down the title river in a palatial paddleboat full of shifty frenemies of a rich beauty (Gal Gadot) and her rakish new husband (Armie Hammer). There are cryptic clues and overheard motives and skulkings around Abu Simbel. It all culminates in murder, and among the suspects are Annette Bening, Letitia Wright, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Tom Bateman, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo and others.

The script, as with Orient Express, is by Michael Green, and once again there's a sense that he and Branagh are gleefully shaking up Christie's staid and bigoted worldview, trying to get to her to roll in her grave (the film has, anyway, the blessing of her great-grandson, Executive Producer James Prichard, who runs Agatha Christie Limited). While the plot, in outline, and the solution to the mystery are essentially the same as in the novel and the enjoyable all-star movie version of 1978 with Peter Ustinov as Poirot, this is still a very free adaptation, with characters added, subtracted and altered for the sake of greater diversity in race and sexuality.

The period sets and costumes are luxurious, as is the cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos, who brought a very different look to Branagh's Belfast. The direction also has plenty of Branagh's characteristic flamboyance and old-school theatrics. Christie was fascinated by the setting (in addition to this book she also set a novel, 1944's Death Comes as the End, in ancient Egypt), so whatever she thought of the characterizations, she might well have liked this movie's lush Egyptian atmosphere; the camera takes in the sights on the riverbanks, and even snoops around below the surface at times.

It may be that contemporary audiences (and critics) will find this a laborious throwback, but I found it not only an opulent, sometimes sexy treat, but also surprisingly emotional; far more so than the 1978 version. This element comes, mostly, from Branagh's heartfelt performance. At key points his Poirot rises to the level of the tragic, like his Shakespeare did in that one great speech about the penknife in 2018's otherwise badly uneven All Is True. In both cases, it's the kind of masterly acting that likely won't get award nominations, but will richly reward attentive viewers. Provided, of course, that we use our little gray cells.

No comments:

Post a Comment