Branagh gives Poirot panache in formulaic Agatha Christie update (PG13)
Dubbed the “Mistress of Mystery", and considered a master of the plot twist, novelist Agatha Christie’s longevity in film comes as no surprise, even to this day.
One of her best works, Death On The Nile (1937) – a whodunit set on a tourist steamer making its way through the Egyptian river – was superbly adapted for the screen in a 1978 classic of the same name.
Four decades later sees another remake, this time directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot.
But while the murder mystery genre could never truly get old with audiences, the way in which it is told certainly could – as evinced by the latest rendition, which also stars Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer.
After Murder On The Orient Express (2017), Branagh continues to explore Poirot – this time not just as a master sleuth but also a man, as he taps into a well of emotions, including some romantic inclinations (Ahh, mon ami, who would’ve thought?)
Our main man’s character is a central tenet of writer Michael Green’s script, which invents a fascinating prelude showing a young Poirot fighting in the trenches of the first world war, and consequently, the origin of that moustache. That’s right, didn’t you ever wonder how and why that magnificent mouth brow came to be?
Branagh brings something spirited and good-humoured to Poirot, a polished follow-up to his previous excursion.
"I am hiding from cases," he protests to his young friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), whom he bumps into while vacationing in the Pyramids of Giza. Soon enough, he is grudgingly back at work, on a trip down the Nile along with a honeymoon party where, naturally, everyone seems to have a motive to murder the bride.
Linnet Ridgeway (Gadot) is celebrating her whirlwind romance and marriage to Simon Doyle (Hammer), whom she met when he was engaged to her longtime friend Jacqueline, played by Emma Mackey of Sex Education fame.
Mackey more than holds her own amid an impressive cast, though it must be said her uncanny resemblance to Margot Robbie is often a distraction.
Also attending the party are jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright); Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Bening); and Linnet’s godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her companion Mrs Bowers (Dawn French) – just to name a few.
Like the riverboat through the Nile, the film’s pace chugs along a little slowly. The movie is almost halfway over before a murder occurs, though things do pick up once that happens.
The essential elements of an old-school whodunit are present – wit, suspense, plot twists – but it is Branagh’s Poirot, fake French accent notwithstanding, that carries the show.
He dials down on the idiosyncrasies synonymous with the famous character but still captures the detective's habits and disposition well.
In one interrogation, he gets seriously addled – a show of raw emotion not often portrayed in previous renditions. And when he reminds people, “I am Hercule Poirot!” after being challenged by a suspect, he sure sounds like he means it.
But the problem with Death On The Nile is that it fails to enhance Christie's storytelling. The first act is far too long, and the clunky introductions of each character (aka suspect) by Bouc to Poirot in an early scene feel like dull exposition rather than a dynamic reveal of who’s who and who’s what.
There's still much to enjoy here, but after Knives Out, you’d imagine the murder mystery genre would have to evolve or risk being tepid.