Saturday, April 02, 2022

Branagh’s Rockin’ Death on the Nile

Who knew Hercule Poirot had such hip taste in music? It came as a surprise to him too, but he really grooves to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Technically, she is called Salome Otterbourne, but she plays electric guitar and her repertoire includes “Rock Me” and “Up Above My Head.” However, she is not completely Sister Rosetta, since she might possibly be kind of slightly interested in him too. Regardless, Poirot will have to concentrate on the bodies that start piling up in director-star Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile, which releases Tuesday on DVD and BluRay.

Like Branagh’s Wallander, his take on Poirot is decidedly sadder and, in this case, even tragic. Screenwriter Michael Green punches up Dame Agatha’s popular novel by giving the Belgian sleuth a rather heartbreaking backstory, flashing back to Poirot’s service in WWI. The truth is, it does help explain why Poirot is so fastidiously Poirot.

Regardless, Poirot finds himself in Egypt, along with newlyweds Simon Doyle and Linette Ridgeway-Doyle, who met at a Salome Otterbourne gig (that Poirot also happened to attend). At the time, Doyle was engaged to Jackie de Belfort, Ridgeway’s dirt-poor best friend. Since then, Doyle traded up to the heiress. De Belfort took the news quite badly. In fact, she has chased the happy couple every step of their Nile cruise honeymoon. Her stalking has grown so unhinged, Poirot agreed to give her a fatherly talking-to. Despite his concern, Ridgeway-Doyle is soon bumped off, but it happens after De Belfort is sedated, following a violent altercation with her former fiancé.

That leaves Poirot with literal boatload of suspects (all aboard the S.S. Karnak), all of whom have motives. Naturally, the elite detective proceeds to investigate, with the help of his old friend Bouc, substituting for David Niven’s Col. Race in the 1978 film. Several of the supporting characters have been reconfigured and assigned different jobs and stations in life, but the fundamental murder mystery remains the same.

However, the music is way better this time and Branagh maybe even makes better use of the grand Egyptian settings. He is a more neurotic Poirot than Ustinov ever was, but he also develops some unusually bittersweet, ambiguously romantic chemistry with Sophie Okonedo’s Otterbourne.

Gal Gadot is just as regal as Lois Chiles was playing Ridgeway-Doyle, but her portrayal is a bit more sympathetic and a tad less entitled (as an IDF veteran, her presence got the film banned in Lebanon). The on-the-verge-of-cancelled Armie Hammer is fine as Doyle, but Simon MacCorkindale had more roguish charm. However, the biggest trade-up might be Emma Mackey, who far outshines her predecessor, Mia Farrow, especially in her crazy stalker scenes. Weirdly though, Russell Brand is totally under-employed as Ridgeway-Doyle’s former fiancé, Linus Windlesham.

Branagh’s Poirot films have been moodier than most previous Christie adaptations (except the 1984
Ordeal by Innocence, which really puts poor Donald Sutherland through the wringer), but he still doubles down on 1930s style and elegance. For the next one, it would be great if he had Poirot listening to Dizzy & Bird on 52nd Street. Why not let Poirot get even hipper? Regardless, his tweaks generally work and he lets the essence of Christie shine through. Enthusiastically recommended for Christie and Tharpe fans, Death on the Nile releases this coming Tuesday (4/5) on DVD and BluRay.