*. We begin in the trenches of the First World War, with a young Hercule Poirot explaining to his commanding officer why the planned attack on the Germans should take place at once because he’s noticed the local birds behaving oddly and that means the wind is blowing in the right direction for the use of poison gas.
*. Wait. What? What an absolutely absurd deduction. Might the wind not change? And the idea that Poirot was fighting in WWI is totally uncanonical. As is the wound to his face that his (soon to be deceased) girlfriend suggests he conceal with his trademark moustache. Where did all of this come from?
*. And more to the point, Why? This intro must have cost a bundle to film and it properly introduces nothing but just gives us a ridiculous and totally unnecessary back story. Poirot had a girlfriend that he lost in the war? Why invent that? Just to show that he understands something about love? And also: hair doesn’t grow on scar tissue, so the moustache-as-disguise idea wouldn’t have worked at all.
*. So Death on the Nile gets off to a bad start. I thought it looked likely to turn into the same sumptuously-appointed train wreck as Kenneth Branagh’s previous turn as Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. Big production values, an all-star cast, and the full use of large-format film that stretches the screen — all of which overwhelms the characters and story and leaves poor Dame Agatha in the dust.
*. But I did enjoy the middle stretches of the journey a bit more. It really is a wonderful movie to look at, and I actually missed seeing it on a big screen (as it was, its release was postponed several times, mainly due to the pandemic stopping it from getting into theatres). But all the glossy (CGI) locations and glossier stars are stuck in a honeyed atmosphere and ramshackle script.
*. Despite all the room in that widescreen image, and just over two hours of running time, none of the performances are allowed enough play to hold our attention. Gal Gadot gets the most attention, but since she’s the (first) murder victim, all the time spent building her character up is a sunk cost. We’re left with a bunch of supporting players, none of whom sticks out as particularly noteworthy. Even Russell Brand fades into the wallpaper. Even if you hadn’t read the book, your options as to whodunit would be pretty thin.
*. Thinning those options out even more are a few other changes made to Christie’s text. First off, a romance writer is changed into a Black blues singer (Sophie Okenedo), whose daughter (Letitia Wright) is the too-good-to-true love interest of Poirot’s friend Bouc. Also, a pair of older women (the comedy team of French and Saunders) are revealed to be lesbians. Now I have nothing against diversity, but the problem with it here is that you know the two Black women and two lesbians can be taken off the list as suspects. As can the Indian lawyer. So that leaves us with . . . you know. Armie Hammer. Before he became better known for talking about eating people.
*. Quickly (and I mean quickly) Poirot interviews all the different subjects, revealing their individual motives for murder, which he’s pulled from clues we haven’t been privy to. Were we supposed to notice the absence of hospital corners made on the one suspect’s bed? What information was in the accounts book he stole? Did you know what colour blood on a handkerchief turns when thrown in the Nile?
*. Then the great detective draws everyone together to reveal the killer. That he has to fire a pistol in the air to get everyone’s attention gives some indication of the level we’re playing on here. It’s not that the “real” Hercule Poirot wouldn’t have resorted to such theatrics, but that the movie has to because Branagh must have felt that by this point the audience’s attention would be wandering.
*. Things get even worse in the big reveal scene. Poirot has only the flimsiest circumstantial evidence to build his conclusion on (evidence that, again, we in the audience haven’t been introduced to), and the killer would have been wise to take his chances in court. Then there’s a Mexican stand-off and two people are (impossibly) slain at close range by a single .22 bullet from a lady’s pistol.
*. So a nice movie to look at, but a worthless script that seems to want to say something about the wages of love but only does so in the most banal terms. Meanwhile, for a Christie mystery it doesn’t even attempt the fundamental job of introducing the suspects and presenting us with the evidence (including red herrings) so we can have fun playing along. There’s no sense of whodunit at all, leaving us with a cruise down the Nile for some celebrity sightseeing.