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Death on the Nile (2022) By Kenneth Branagh - Movie Review

Death on the Nile (2022) Directed by: Kenneth Branagh Writers: Michael Green (screenplay by) Agatha Christie (based upon the novel by) Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Rose Leslie, Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright, Ali Fazal, Russell Brand, Dawn FrenchJennifer Saunders Run Time: 127 min Rated: PG (Canada), PG-13 (MPAA) for violence, some bloody images, and sexual material

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains some spoilers ... but 'who done it?' isn't revealed)

Poirot a-woken

Agatha Christie’s murder mystery about a beautiful heiress, Linnet Doyle née Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) who is murdered on her honeymoon while traveling down Egypt’s Nile River has received a modern update in Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile (2022). Readers of Christie’s 1937 novel and fans of previous film and television versions of her book will recognize the many changes and additions made by screen writer Michael Green—changes that reflect Hollywood’s current obsession with race, gender, and sexuality.

Kenneth Branagh reprises his role as fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot which he first played in his adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017). On a river boat vacation in Egypt Poirot becomes embroiled in a case that turns from stalking to murder and must uncover the true nature of the homicide with a cast of suspicious characters each with reason to murder newlywed Linnet (Ridgeway) Doyle.

Dogged by her husband Simon Doyle's (Armie Hammer) jilted former fiancée and one-time close friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), Linnet confides in Poirot, “When you have money, no one is ever really your friend.” She had previously lamented that de Bellefort was the only one who didn’t care about her money which made their falling out all the more tragic. Apart from the party crashers Poirot and de Bellefort everyone on the river boat is traveling as part of Linnet’s nuptial entourage. Think of it as an extended wedding reception turned exotic honeymoon—a kind of “lifestyle of the rich and famous” 1920s destination wedding.

The Ridgeway fortune was amassed by Linnet’s deceased father bilking the rich and powerful of their land and capital. His ruthless business practices created many enemies for the newlywed even among her closest friends and family. Her scheming “cousin” and lawyer, Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), has motive to gain control of the fortune to cover his embezzlement; her godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), a Communist sympathiser, loathes what she considers her goddaughter’s ill-gotten wealth; the family of Van Schuyler’s nurse companion Bowers’ (Dawn French) was reduced to poverty by the Ridgeway family; even Linnet’s formerly penniless husband Doyle stands to financially gain from her death.

Apart from financial gain, others around Linnet have reason to want her dead. She had ended the engagement of her lady’s maid Louise Bourget’s (Rose Leslie) when she had discovered Bourget’s fiancé was a swindler with great debts leaving Bourget embittered towards her employer; Linnet was once engaged to a Dr. Lord Windlesham (Russell Brand) whom she jilted in the same way de Bellefort was jilted by Doyle leaving Windlesham potentially just as jealous and distraught; and then there’s the African American blues singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece manager Rosalie Otterbourne (Letitia Wright). Years earlier Linnet had publicly slighted them before Rosalie and Linnet became friends at boarding school. The Otterbournes find themselves along for the honeymoon providing musical entertainment because Salome had been playing in the club the night Linnet and Doyle first met. That night Poirot had observed Linnet Ridgeway’s love-at-first-sight encounter with Simon Doyle who was only recently engaged to her friend Jacqueline de Bellefort.     

Rounding out the cast of characters is Poirot’s friendly acquaintance Bouc (Tom Bateman) which Branagh and Green reprise from Murder on the Orient Express (2017). The Bouc character does not appear in Christie’s novel and replaces Col. Race. Another addition, Bouc’s cynical widowed mother Euphemia Bouc (Annette Bening), joins the ill-fated wedding party on their Nile River cruise. In this version of the story Bouc’s mother has secretly retained Poirot to investigate Rosalie Otterbourne Bouc’s love interest to determine if she is a suitable future spouse for her son. Euphemia is particularly cynical when it comes to love even giving an embittered rant against St. Paul’s description of love from 1 Corinthians 13. This plot involving the Otterbournes and Boucs is woven through Branagh and Green’s adaptation providing additional twists and turns.

Why the changes? On the one hand, Branagh and Green are faced with the task of making an entertaining film for viewers who may know how the story ends. On the other hand, they need to deliver a film that will satisfy those wishing to revisit Death on the Nile out of nostalgia—a tall order to fill. Sadly, this delicate balance is not achieved leaving viewers with a muddled mess more interested in Hollywood’s identity politics than simply and faithfully adapting the source material warts and all. Most modern adaptations of popular novels from the 1930s will struggle with whether or not to include details and dialogue out of step with modern Hollywood sensibilities. This is a perennial challenge in Hollywood. How filmmakers tackled it however changes over time with the fickle attitudes of the day. What was acceptable yesterday may not be acceptable today but may be acceptable tomorrow.     

John Guillermin’s feature film version of Death on the Nile (1978) took some liberties by paring back Christie’s cast of characters but the result was a much more sympathetic and easier to follow adaptation than this version. Branagh and Green’s Death on the Nile, for all its intended glamour and sophistication, suffers from attempting to check off all of Hollywood’s ideological boxes in a way that distracts from the film’s intended narrative.

By now most viewers are familiar with diversity casting that opens the door to storylines dealing with contemporary issues like racism, or the recasting of characters to suit LGBTQ interests. A more puzzling and certainly anachronistic historical revision in this film puts women as classic hotel bellhops and as porters and crew on the Karnak River Boat carrying both luggage and corpses. This is puzzling considering the film is set in 1920s Egypt where cultural norms concerning women would likely preclude them from wearing men’s attire while working blue-collar service and tourism industry jobs. This modern trend to create gender diversity in the workforce of the day in addition to other changes repeatedly provides opportunity to break the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

Why are these changes even included in Branagh and Green’s Death on the Nile? Is it a desire to rehabilitate Agatha Christie’s novel? If so, it raises questions. Is this effort simply a reflection of Hollywood’s current values, or is it a critique or condemnation of Christie as a writer of mystery novels, or is it an effort to placate some viewers while indoctrinating others? Could it be a combination of all these interests? In an AMC promotional interview for the film Branagh said his personal interest in Christie’s Poirot novels stems from his mother’s enjoyment of them when he was a kid. Upon looking to adapt Christie’s novels and take up the mantle of Poirot as an actor, are there bits and pieces of the writer’s work he now finds embarrassing or hard to reconcile with his values? Hard to say; these issues may belong to Green and not Branagh. Either way, if this is the case does that give the artist creative licence to reshape the source material? This is a question fans are grappling with over projects like Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings series The Rings of Power (2022) and historical dramas like the AMC+ miniseries Anne Boleyn (2021). Why develop projects based on the work of individuals, Tolkien, or historical personages Anne Boleyn, if they require reinvention or revision? Why not simply use all that creative energy to make new projects that reflect the ideological convictions of the filmmakers? Is Death on the Nile (2022) intended as entertainment or is it being pressed into labour beyond that which Christie had initially envisioned? Inquisitive viewers, if interested in contemplating these points, will certainly have a mystery of their own to unravel. 

Screenplay writer Michael Green wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that Guillermin’s 1978 Death on the Nile which he saw on VHS as a five-year-old taught him that good people could be hurt or killed on purpose by other, not-so-good people. He said that “Christie introduced me to the simple fact of murder. She made me see the world was not as benign as I had believed.”[1] And for that he personally hated her for years, at least until he worked on adapting Murder on the Orient Express for Branagh. Along with other audience members Christian viewers will likewise be given opportunity to think about murder in relation to this film and Lutheran viewers will likely have the 5th Commandment in mind:

You shall not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbour in his body but help and support him in every physical need.[2]

What Guillermin’s 1978 Death on the Nile revealed to Green is the nature of sin and the problem of evil—a troubling thing to become aware of as a five-year-old. Strip away all the flash and dazzle of Branagh’s film and what lies beneath, even with all of Green’s tinkering, is Christie’s study of driving motive. What makes a murderer? St. James describes it like this, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14–15). The desires in question swirling around Linnet Doyle are rooted in covetousness. The women around her covet her beauty and her ability to always get her way; the men covet her wealth and power.

Once conceived these underlying motives give birth to attempted and actual theft and multiple acts of murder. Murder mystery films and novels live in a kind of luminal adjacent space next to true crime documentaries and non-fiction accounts of homicide. While fictional, Christie’s stories of murder, regardless of the way they are presented, provide opportunity for readers and viewers to think about the devastating nature of murder and the trail of broken lives and pain left in its wake. While Branagh’s film released around Valentine’s Day slathers the plot with excess romance and sultry sensuality, the motivations are less about lust or love and more about coveting. In the face of the temptation to covetousness Christians are called to nip such temptations in the bud with repentant confession and absolution before they grow and to rather seek to help and be of service to their neighbour to keep their inheritance and property, even workers and spouse and to not scheme to get these things in ways that only appear right to the casual observer.[3] Poirot is an interesting character because he acts as one who works to fulfil these commandments or at the very least provide justice by exposing the true nature of the sins and the perpetrators of the sins which brought forth death.             

How does this film stack up? When stripped of its glitz and tinsel Death on the Nile is rather clunky. Branagh, who is an ambitious director, doesn’t always deliver; for every Henry V (1989) or Thor (2011) there’s a Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) or Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014). While not particularly memorable, his Murder on the Orient Express (2017) was a more solid film by comparison. Even Branagh’s Death on the Nile visual effects are inconsistent often giving the film a fake feel where it’s hard to make sense of depth of field and distances. One of the strengths of Guillermin’s Death on the Nile (1978) is a strong sense of place and location, Branagh’s film losses this with all its obvious digital trickery. The exercise and poorly executed use of CGI is another one of the film’s odd elements that repeatedly threaten to break the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. It works best when Branagh focuses his camera on the elaborate and detailed Karnak River Boat set which is a true accomplishment in set design almost worth the price of admission. 

As for Branagh’s Poirot, he clearly revels in his work of reprising this character for the big screen and his enthusiasm and delight is contagious making his performance one of the film’s more enjoyable aspects. However, Branagh makes Poirot a character deeply entangled in the plot’s thematic underpinnings, showcasing his own regrets in love, and even giving a back story for Poirot’s splendid moustaches. Emphasising these points of character development moves him from being a careful investigator in control of his faculties to an overly emotional detective caught up in the distractions littered along the path to the truth. Clearly Branagh wants his Poirot to become part of a continuing franchise of films. With an estimated £120 million budget success at the box office will ultimately decide if this will be Branagh’s last case as Hercule Poirot. 

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!

[1] 2017 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed: Before I wrote the screenplay for ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ I hated Agatha Christie
[2] The Fifth CommandmentLuther's Small CatechismConcordia Publishing House 2017, Pg 14.
[3] The Nineth and Tenth CommandmentsLuther's Small CatechismConcordia Publishing House 2017, Pg 15.
This review now available at The Canadian Lutheran

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