It might be obvious but it deserves restating — the Agatha Christie detective, Hercule Poirot, is crafted in the reflection of a critic, always discerning, digging ferociously, desperately at the details on the edge of the frame of consciousness, sniffing for clues while others eat oyster, forever hopeful to crack an idea that could make one successful, boastful. Boastful, certainly! The kind who will stare with glee, teeth flashing with humble awe at a humbling work of art, the Egyptian Pyramids in Death On The Nile, for example, and will crinkle their nose if they see someone flying their kite by climbing onto the monument. Oh Poirot, screaming at the man, how dare you stake your fun at the cost of mine? This is a heritage monument, not a Makar Sankranti building terrace. (My words, not his) Also, not many like him, except those that do, who then, either as compensation or personality-related reasons, adore him. He’s indispensable. He’s incorrigible. He’s unbearable.
Death On The Nile — for all the suspense, titular death, and suspects — is entirely about Poirot (Kenneth Branagh). It begins with a strained black and white war sequence where Poirot’s heroism, love, wounds, and subsequent mustache to hide the wounds is established. Each will be tested by the narrative — at the end we see his heroism dimmed by mourning, his love slowly taking shape, and his mustache? That, too, has an arc.
He is the protagonist, the only source of humour, and thus humanity in this glitzy, reckless display of wealth — of the protagonists, of the studio — where each character is flattened into their essentials. Gal Gadot is the wealthy-sultry-insecure Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle, Armie Hammer is Simon Doyle, her lover, the kind of man whose affections are fickle and whose erotic charm is unassailable. Ali Fazal is Linnet’s lawyer, hunched, fidgety, looking left and right when everyone else is looking straight at the scene of action. Sophie Okonedo is a sassy Blues singer, and Letitia Wright is her sassy apprentice, manager, niece. (Is sassy Blackness on screen a corrective or a compensation?) There is a communist, her nurse, a maid, an artist with a son — the efficiently named Bouc played by Tom Bateman — who assists Poirot as a friend. There is little to these characters beyond the adjectives given to them in the very beginning, when Bouc plays guide to Poirot, describing everyone at the scene.
The tension in the film hurtling towards the titular death springs from Jacqueline de Bellefort, played by Emma Mackey (Sex Education). We first see her in a sensuous dance with Simon in a restaurant, where Simon’s touch is both that of support and of eros — the way he holds her right under her breast, her back, her thighs. They should be having sex. She is engaged to Simon, an engagement that breaks with Simon running off with Linnet. As revenge, Jacqueline keeps showing up at Simon’s honeymoon, in Egypt, on the Nile, and Linnet, thus, curries favour with Poirot because she is worried that Jacqueline is out to kill her.
As film critic Roger Ebert noted in his review of another Agatha Christie film in the 1980s, “The delicious moments in an Agatha Christie film are supposed to come at the end, when the detective … gathers everyone in the sitting room and toys with their guilt complexes before finally fingering the murderer.” Till then — that gathering — everything is up in the air, the kind of air where you are not given enough clues to scurry for and guess the murderer. There is nothing you can do but submit to the logic of the film, waiting for this gathering. It’s all very 36 China Town. This means that the pay-off of the climax hinges on how unthinkable yet believable the logic is. Death On The Nile certainly has that going for it — an end you don’t see coming, at least not in the strange shape it finally takes.
This film isn’t a bore as much as it is a stretch. As the bodies pile up, the patience wears thin.
Back to Poirot — for there is little else that is charming about the film, worth thinking through, writing through — the narrative glue who lends the film his affect. The audience I was with — critics like Poirot himself — lit up when he tried to flirt with his dusty attempts by speaking of gardening vegetables. He is a bumbling idiot in matters of the heart, as much as he is granular in matters of the mind. Every character, at least the ones who survive the death boat, walk away from the film only after bidding him farewell, such is his grasp over the film, its characters, its world.
With great budgets comes expensive actors — not necessarily good ones, but again this might be one of those obvious things that needs re-stating — and a production design that is ostentatious, almost flippant, flaunting. Awe is reduced to scale and CGI stars in the sky, beauty to glitz, and Egypt to Morocco and studio floors. So insistent is the film on establishing the rottenness of the world that it produces snakes, crocodiles, and sandstorms to evoke other-ness. This film couldn’t have been Death On The English Channel because it refuses to rethink the East, Africa, as anything but an oriental delicacy. Why, then, remake it, parking money in this compelling but artistically daft project? Surely, adding characters of colour isn’t reason enough. Surely, the warm light of Egypt and its cracking monuments isn’t, either. Just fun, then?
We have shots of Gal Gadot walking on the deck, the camera tracking her smoothly from beyond the railings. There is no tension, no buildup, no discernable need for this shot, and yet it exists. Almost taking its stars more seriously than its characters. There are brief glimpses of artistry — the final shot of two lovers bleeding into each other, totally devoid of a background score, felt sculpted out of pain and air. Similarly, Emma Mackey’s smirk, the way one edge of her lip lifts in doubt or pain or joy, pitches her character and her performance a notch above the rest. There is something so confident and compelling even when she’s being pathetic.
The New York Times was quite acerbic in their review of the 1978 Death On The Nile: “a big expensive, star‐studded bore in which a lot of famous talent is permitted — no, encouraged — to do a series of campy turns on their own worst mannerisms.” This film, however, isn’t a bore as much as it is a stretch. As the bodies pile up, the patience wears thin. But this film is certainly meta and campy, and it twists the goofy oddness of Ali Fazal into a character, spinning Gal Gadot’s nothingness into operatic nothingness. But in Branaugh and thus Poirot, it finds a shoulder to rest its weary, dollar-addled head on. And that’s enough, I guess.