And so with DEATH ON THE NILE (2022), we learn about the man behind the moustaches. That would be Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s cerebral Belgian detective devoted to his “little grey cells” and keeping order in the world. The former gets short shrift, mention-wise, in this adaptation, while the latter rears its compulsive head in Poirot’s aversion to odd numbers, even when it means giving up one of seven tempting desserts hear the start of the story.
Before we get there, though, there is a prologue set during World War I in which a younger, pre-moustaches Poirot (director Kenneth Branagh), saves his company from certain death when taking a bridge by using astute observations of the native avian population. Alas, it doesn’t prevent a few casualties, including Poirot’s upper lip, and the subsequent loss of his one true love as a result of her devotion to him.
Before we learn the circumstances of that bereavement, we are treated to the now traditional cinematic adaptation of Christie’s works. A star-studded cast emoting in extravagant settings in even more extravagant clothing. (Some of us have never gotten over Dame Diana Rigg’s sunbathing chapeau in the EVIL UNDER THE SUN.) It begins with Delta Blues coming to London, Salome Otterbourne’s (Sophie Okonedo) performance at an intimate club causes the dashing but destitute Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) to ditch his adoring fiancée, doe-eyed Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) for her best friend, the fabulously wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) as they dirty dance to the pulsing rhythms and sensuous vocals of Miss Otterbourne.
Poirot, fresh from another sleuthing triumph, witnesses it all, which comes in handy when he finds himself in Egypt some months later contemplating the Sphinx. To his great surprise and consternation, he runs into his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), who is flying a kite from one of the pyramids.
Poirot, for the uninitiated, has a plethora of old friends that inevitably pop up from the past only to draw him into devilishly confounding murder mysteries.
Bouc is there with his mother Euphemia (Annette Benning), and they are both in tow as part of the crowded Egyptian honeymoon that the Simon Doyle’s are throwing themselves. Naturally, the happy couple want the celebrated detective to join them, partly to add luster to the proceedings, and partly because of how the spurned Jacqueline is stalking them at every stage of the trip. Her latest appearance, dressed in gold-trimmed crimson that flows like the Nile itself, is a suitably dramatic one that leaves the groups speechless amid the opulence of the posh hotel where the group is staying. It also prompts Simon and Linnet to charter a boat for the rest of the trip, where they can be free from Jacqueline’s intrusions while still soaking in the sun and ancient monuments of the land of the Pharaohs.
Poirot signs on, of course, and despite a heart-to-heart with Jacqueline, who shows him her emotionally unbalanced state and her daintily engraved .22 pistol, someone is murdered, and the most likely suspects are the ones with the best alibies. Immediately, the detective begins to question everyone and to exercise his unmentioned “little grey cells” while red herrings and genuine clues are tossed into the air like so much bridal rice.
This adaptation echoes the cinematic formula of giddy excess, but it is anything but a frothy romp. Poirot has the eccentricities and hubris that have endeared him to generations of whodunnit fans, and the plot is fiendishly clever, but this is a more fully realized Poirot, haunted by the past and given to tears. Branagh is more than capable in both regards, as the film unfolds pervasive themes, beyond homicide, into the much more fraught territory of how dangerous love can be.
It’s more successful than the flirtation the script has with the inherent dangers of the class system, and the crushing burdens equally inherent in great wealth. From the dotty godmother (Jennifer Saunders) who gave hers away (mostly) to the Communist Party and the downtrodden nurse/companion (Dawn French) she harries with hypochondria and emotional neediness, to Euphemia snapping the monetary whip at her buoyant son to keep him from marrying Salome’s niece/manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright) who are engaged as entertainers for the trip, money doesn’t seem to make anyone happy. Not even Linnet, who confides to Poirot that having so much money means she can’t really trust anyone, not even her cousin/financial manager (Ali Fazal), or the socially conscious physician/suitor who still carries a torch for her (Russell Brand). She sees danger everywhere and considering the worldwide economic collapse back there in the 1930s, it may not be unfounded paranoia. Gadot deserves special note for the way she plays an heiress who believes she is kind, and for the most part is, but who is also sublimely unaware of how condescending, even cruel, she can be. If Branagh’s is the showier part, Gadot’s is the more difficult to humanize, and she succeeds with admirable aplomb.
DEATH ON THE NILE is a visual delight, and the performances, even Branagh’s dips and twirls into ham-dom, are just as pleasing. If the pacing is a bit plodding, Branagh as director frames his scenes with the organized and formal precision that would warm Poirot’s heart and his sense of precise order. Plus, there is much to amuse the visual cortex of our little gray cells as we wait for the next shocking development or equally shocking reveal.