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Kenneth Branagh’s inventive version of Death on the Nile finds him at his playful best as both star and director.

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh)
Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh)

The Belgian Detective

Agatha Christie’s mystery, first published in 1937, isn’t a simple whodunnit involving a murder. It’s an intricate tale of three murders and a theft. And even more still, with one final juicy twist. This adaptation, a follow-up to Branagh’s first outing as world-famous detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, is such a savory retelling, Poirot himself might describe it as “fameux.”

While the main story’s very much the same as the novel and other adaptations, Branagh and returning screenwriter Michael Green have amped up some interesting elements that set this version apart. The way it takes certain themes and ideas from the source material and elevates them into something even more powerful makes this one feel a little bit like Anthony Minghella’s exquisite adaptation of The English Patient.

Christie’s story certainly features romance, several variations on love and all kinds of betrayal, but Green and Branagh switch up some of the players, redefine some of the roles and introduce some fantastic side dishes that lead to a conclusion that is even more impactful — specifically to Poirot’s own world — than what’s found in the original book.

The shame of it all is that — thanks to the ongoing pandemic — it’s likely going to take a while for audiences to find this one and enjoy all its subtleties. It’s clear in the current theatrical climate that subtlety is a tragic victim that has fallen out of vogue.

Friends and Family

One of the movie’s best surprises is right in the opening frames. It’s a new preface set in 1917, on the Belgian frontlines of World War I, with a young Poirot in the trenches. It’s a black-and-white episode that gives a backstory to Poirot’s infamous mustache. But much more significant is how it propels the character of Poirot forward, providing him with newfound depth that comes front and center as the movie concludes and refers back to this opening episode.

Move forward to 1937 London, a dance hall and a hot blues band led by Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo, Dirty Pretty Things). It’s a spicy setting and an environment in which Poirot is introduced to and observes many of the key players.

Those observations include the introduction of what is to become an infamous love triangle between Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey, Sex Education), Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer, The Lone Ranger) and Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman).

In many respects, Death on the Nile plays out like an anti-love story and the irony of it opening on Valentine’s Day weekend 2022 has just now crossed this writer’s mind (pre-pandemic and before Armie Hammer’s personal life scandal, the movie was originally set for a December 2020 release). As similarly found in The English Patient, the characters here represent love in all its various forms, including the familial, the pure, the genuine and the perverse. And that, of course, includes Poirot’s own tragic love backstory, which also figures into the opening scenes in 1917.

But wait a minute. Another thing Poirot is introduced to in that dark dance hall is the very real 1930s blues-rock music and electric guitar wizardry of Sister Rosetta Tharpe — by way of the character of Salome. It’s not just that the historical timing works out, it’s that Poirot’s introduction to this radical new form of music transforms his own character. So clever. So remarkably subtle. It’s the kind of creative decision making that can take a remake and set it apart as a fresh work all its own.

Karnak the Magnificent

Branagh has a clear affinity for Poirot and that’s on display via that character’s evolution through his interactions with Salome, but there’s another surprise appearance. Bouc (Tom Bateman, Da Vinci’s Demons), the wandering child of wealthy parents, returns from his appearance on the Orient Express and provides another element of refactoring that turns into another avenue for making Poirot less of a caricature and more of a relatable human being.

Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot)
Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot)

Those elements reveal Branagh the actor’s affection for Poirot within the narrative and as a character. But there’s also Branagh the director, who presents this material with plenty of cinematic style and glamour. As an example, Branagh and his go-to cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos (Belfast), are visually playful on the deck of the Karnak, the ship that sails the Nile and is the setting for murder. The facets of the ship’s windows elegantly serve as a device for imagery and lighting to dance across the screen.

Take that visual flair off-ship for some humorous sight gags involving the survival of the fittest in the wilds of the Nile, with crocodiles attacking birds and small fish falling prey to bigger fish beneath the water’s surface and this version of Death on the Nile has fun playing with this murder mystery within the greater contexts of love and the circle of life.

And, while it’s a case of complete serendipity, at one point Linett is put on a pedestal and presented as the Queen of the Nile. In reality, Gadot is set to play Cleopatra in a feature to be co-produced with Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins.

While the humor is more understated than Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, particularly in regard to Poirot himself, this follow-up is a production that is visually playful, subtly humorous and thematically rich.