Friday, March 11, 2022

Death on the Nile

Last night, I continued my movie-going spree with another trip to DL for the latest Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novels. This time it was Death on the Nile, again (like the 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express) featuring Branagh himself as the fussy Belgian sleuth with the absurd mustache. This time the mustache gets its own superhero origin story, forged on a World War I battlefield and welded to Poirot's face by the heartbreak of a lifetime. Instead of murder and class warfare confined to a snowbound passenger train, this installment features murder and class warfare on a pleasure boat anchored in the I Bet You Can Guess Which River. The murder plot centers around a romantic triangle whose steaminess is somewhat lost in the sweltering Egyptian climate, although some hot blues music and dirty dancing does bring out the sex appeal somewhat.

I counted six crimes that Poirot solves in this story: three murders, one attempted murder, the theft of a priceless jewel necklace and some major embezzlement. The moneyed gentlefolk exhibit a certain capacity for violence and brutality. Death for love, death for money and death for desperation to elude capture all get mixed up together in the type of mystery where all the suspects are confined together for the duration of the great detective's investigation. Culminating, of course, in one of those classic scenes where the survivors are all together in one room and Poirot says (here I paraphrase), "The murderer is one of you." Then casts a couple red herrings before revealing the final truth.

What the movie does well, perhaps better than average for the formula it follows, is involve Poirot personally and bring out his deepest emotions. It presents a real puzzle but with all the pieces needed for alert viewers to put it together themselves, so that as the solution is finally revealed, you sense its rightness and yet, at the same time, experience amazement. It has terrific acting, a beautiful period look and a chilling atmosphere, despite the heat of the setting and the character dynamics. Its cast includes Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer and Sophie Okonedo, among other names and faces you may or may not know. First billing actually goes to Tom Bateman, whose character "Bouc" was also in Orient Express. Because of so-called controversies involving members of its cast, it has been targeted by cancel culture. Looking at the film on its own merits, therefore, it's a classic example of why, in my opinion, nobody whose evaluation of a piece of art or entertainment is based on cancel culture deserves anyone's respect.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me (trying not to spoil too much, but probably failing): (1) Poirot grills Bouc in a final interrogation that (almost) reveals the killer, an emotional high point that earns Bateman his top billing. (2) Bouc's mother (Bening) leans on the arm of the girlfriend she previously disapproved of (Letitia Wright of Black Panther). (3) The "Poirot reveals all" scene with its mindblowing, devastating revelations. Although I also loved the cabaret scene (with dirty dancing and blues singing) establishing the central love triangle – Gal Gadot has never looked sexier – and the atmospheric shore trip to Abu Simbel with a dust storm blowing in and a torchlit temple and already pretty general suspicion of everybody before much (except a little attempted murder) has actually happened.

One thing I could have done without is the mustache origin story and its related epilogue, which I think delves too deeply into the character of Poirot. I wish Branagh would respect the sleuth's privacy and let him be as Christie depicted him, something of an enigma but not so interesting in and of himself that he pulls focus off the mystery at hand. However, the bonus opportunity to hear Sophie Okonedo (or at least, her voice double?) sing the blues makes it almost forgivable.

No comments: