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Death on the Nile / Tod auf dem Nil

Director: Kenneth Branagh (USA, UK). Year of Release: 2022

The Belgian trenches, 1914. Men rush past with stretchers carrying the wounded. An army captain is explaining to his men about the coming manoeuvre. In 3 hours’ time, they are to go over the top and try to capture the nearby bridge. Many will lose their lives, but they can be proud that they will have died for the love of their country.

Up steps a soldier, looking like the young Ken Branagh (you can do anything with CGI these days). He has sensed a change in the wind and suggests attacking the bridge immediately. They take the bridge at a minimal loss of life (except Germans who don’t count). Then the captain does something stupid and causes an explosion. Young Ken (who will be known from now as Hercule) receives permanent facial scarring. A gilfriend-nurse appears and recommends that he covers it up with facial hair.

The pre-credit scene is not just important as the origins story of Poirot’s moustache, or because it shows us a detective who is embittered with love. It also places Death on the Nile outside the traditional Agatha Christie world which usually has little to do with historical reality. References are made to the Wall Street Crash, to the Communist Party, to racism and homosexuality. These are not just cut-out figures in a country house (or whatever) drama, but real people in the real world.

Maybe we’d better get to the main plot. We are speedily and elegantly introduced to a host of characters who are to spend some bloody time together on a boat in Egypt. There’s the newly betrothed couple Simon and Linnet who are celebrating their honeymoon. Both of them have exes on board – a timid doctor and an apparent bunny boiler who never got over being dumped. Linnet has also invited an old school friend Rosalie, who is secretly in love with Poirot’s old friend Bouc.

And there’s more. Linnet has a Communist godmother, who is the only guest to bring along a servant. She also has a cousin who looks after her papers, though not entirely honestly. Rosalie’s aunt Salome is there to provide the on-board entertainment. We first see Salome in a dress and electric guitar, looking every inch like Rosetta Tharpe. All of these guests have reasons to kill. By accident or design? Well, what do you think? Some conventions should just be accepted.

The fact that Rosalie and Salome are black gave me misgivings. This is not because colour blind casting is a bad thing, but because it would be unusual for a boat full of English poshoes in the late 1930s not to contain the odd racist. When Bouc’s mother disapproves of Rosalie because she is American, you worry that this might be an excuse, but also that the film may believe that casting black actors would enable it to avoid mentioning racism. A later scene disabuses us of this worry.

The plot development is often fairly superficial. A load of interchangeable toffs fall in love with each other then all fall out. To be honest, there are too many characters for most of them to have recognisable characteristics and there is little chemistry between most of the lovers, which seems to justify Poirot’s cynicism about relationships. And the first murder doesn’t occur until over half way through a film that is over 2 hours long.

Fortunately, the virtues of the film do not depend on anything much actually happening. Or rather, as long as everything is elegantly wrapped up in the final quarter hour, the rest of it is incidental. Even if much of the acting is forgettable, we have a couple of star turns, not least by Branagh as the ADHD Poirot, who can’t even cope with having an odd number of desserts on his plate.

It’s been a while since I read the book, or even saw the Peter Ustinov film, so I’m not sure how many liberties have been taken. I don’t think that Christie would have been quite so indulgent of the rich donator to the Communist, and I’m pretty sure that the line that a Lord is a suspect because the nobility are used to getting their own way has been added. But the, shall we say improvements, do not change the basics from the original rollicking yarn.

There are, of course, the Unfortunate Casting Problems. Since the film was recorded, Arnie Hammer has been outed as an alleged sexual abuser and Leticia Wright as a pro-Vaxxer. I’m a little more annoyed that most people scandalizing this prefer not to mention that Gal Gadot was a self-declared proud IDF sergeant long before anything was filmed, but I’m personally just about ok separating the film from its problematic actors.

The result is a film that is flawed for sure and could have done with some serious editing. But, after the initial critical euphoria, we now seem to have entered a period of backlash, which I think is undeserved. It’s a perfectly decent film – the sort I used to watch on telly on Sunday afternoons with my mother. Yes, there are a few more adventurous films, but there are many out there that are much worse than this.

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