Continuing their reimaging of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot detective stories, Oscar-winning actor/director Kenneth Branagh (Belfast) and screenwriter Michael Green (Murder on the Orient Express) re-team for Death on the Nile. This star-studded crime drama not only offers thrills, chills, and matters of the heart, but it also installed new history for Poirot. If one were to be childish and prone to over-simplification, that history could be described as “giving Poirot’s singular mustache a backstory.” More accurately, what Green does (with permission from the Christie Estate) is create a reason for Poirot to be as deeply entrenched in the theme at the heart of Death on the Nile as all the other misbegotten characters-turned-suspects. In a film where the details matter, this is but one of many in which how we look at it defines what we see. Now available on home video, you can explore this and other details in Death on the Nile via more than 10 minutes of deleted scenes and roughly 38 minutes of behind the scenes content across four featurettes.
Love is in the air as newlyweds Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) celebrate their nuptials by taking a trip through Egypt with their wedding party. One of them, Bouc (Tom Bateman), stumbles across old friend Hercule Poirot (Branagh), also on holiday, and invites him to join their festivities. Though hesitant to include himself in such private matters, he acquiesces upon the request of Linnet as she is fearful of her life, the prime suspect being her former friend and Simon’s ex-fiancée Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) who keeps following them from location to location. Call it a twist of fate or coincidence as Linnet was right to ask Poirot to join them as someone kills her as they sail down the Nile, the only suspects being her wedding party which is a mish-mash of relatives, misbegotten lovers, and employees. Everyone has a motive, everyone has opportunity, and no one is safe until the killer is rooted out.
Let’s talk expectations vs. reality for a moment.
Ahead of my screening Death on the Nile, I came across a tweet making fun of the film, specifically declaring that the film contained two scenes of “dry humping.” This set forth in my mind, a person with no knowledge of the source material and a presumption from the marketing that the film would be a bit of a scruples comedy, that the film I was about to engage in would be seeking salaciousness in some kind of awkward fashion. The truth of the matter, both scenes, taking out that Armie Hammer is involved in both, aren’t the least bit funny nor are they played as jokes. Both scenes involve lovers enjoying each other’s bodies, the first taking place on a 1930’s dance floor in keeping with the style of dance of the era and the second being newlyweds taking advantage of a private moment during their honeymoon. Additionally, both sequences set up the type of people whose story we’re following: three passionate individuals representing a different type of love in their characterization. To reduce the public amorous acts to “dry humping” implies a certain adolescence, an immaturity of the perpetrators, when, in fact, the gyrations involved in both scenes convey a great deal about the relationships themselves. The most telling, of course, being that despite their physical positions implying subservience, the women are the ones who have dominated Hammer’s Doyle. There’s power in the women’s respective sexualities and these scenes highlight that power, not to mention serve as an example of just one type of love within the film. Love isn’t always for the young nor is it always exuberant and public. It can be private, secret even; it can be multicultural; it can be held onto over time and never let go of.
This leads to the next bit that surprised: there’s a proper beating heart at the center of Death on the Nile.
Given my only experience with Christie has been whatever played on PBS as a child, I knew that her stories were of the deadly sort but little else. Seeing the cast that adorned the first Branagh adaptation and the manner of its marketing, I, too, presumed that it was a comedy. Consider me flabbergasted in the best way upon learning that not only is Death a straightly-played crime drama, but that it takes its time in setting the board before diving into the accusations and theorizing. Green’s script delicately walks the line between offering too much too soon and just enough to keep you guessing. I’m sure much of this goes back to the source material, but adaptations are difficult, even harder when doing so with Christie’s work, and even more so when making changes to the source material. According to the “Novel to Film” featurette, not only is there a new addition illustrating Poirot’s background, but Green reduced the number of players from 12 to 9. On its face, the number may seem insignificant, but that means that Green had to untie and rethread Christie’s original narrative without losing anything of value. Especially in detective stories, the details matter more than anything, so managing to adjust the source without losing the grit or the heart is admirable. Not only that, the script maintains a solid flow, building toward the inciting murder without making any pointed efforts toward it and, once the game is afoot, keeping the momentum going until the end.
Where the film stumbles is in the larger special effects work and the implications they create. The de-aging on Branagh, for instance, at the start of the film is glaring, even in black-and-white. Too often the computer-driven process is far more distracting than it might be to hire a different actor to play the role. Add in the fact that the film starts in 1914 before jumping to 1937 and one begins to wonder what kind of life Poirot has led that he seems to have aged so greatly in 23 years. Then there’s anything that’s not a stage: the Nile itself, surrounding locations, and wide shots of either London or parts of Egypt. Unless a physical location, too much of the film looks manufactured, ruining the tangibility of the tale. Sincerely, the best parts of the film are done on the boat, the Karnak, which was actually built for the production. There’s a brief walkthrough in the featurette “Design on the Nile” where everything from the costumes to the production design is addressed. Here, you see the awe of the cast as they come to the Karnak for the first-time ever and in character, their impressed reactions are as close to real as possible. As the audience, working with a real ship creates opportunities for the story to be far more immersive than when a fictional backdrop is used. From time to time, the blue-screened shores of the Nile become more prominent should your eye stray from the action as you notice the crew of the Karnak pantomining actions off the side of the Karnak. In contrast, when Poirot is investigating, because of the realness of the setting, the camera tracking from one point to another without cutting or editing, the audience can feel the claustrophobia and energy of the moment.
If learning about the making of the film is your particular cup of tea, the featurettes are going to delight you. None of the four are particularly lengthy and each offer not only a look at the production of the film from scripting to design to directing, but the opportunity to hear from representatives of the Christie Estate. Granted, the bonus features are also promotional materials, so it makes sense that everything they’d say would be positive, but what we learn feels less like shilling and more like frank reactions to changes or adjustments. One might presume a certain tight restriction coming from the Christie Estate, yet they seem to understand that adaptations require nips, tucks, and the like when making the transition from page to screen. That commentary on this isn’t restricted to just the “Novel to Film” featurette, which is delightful because it means we get more than their input on just the adaptation, we get it on all the other aspects of the film, too. Additionally, there are eight deleted scenes to peruse, each one offering either an additional, extended, or alternate scene in the film. None of them seem to shift how we engage the story and their removal can be understood.
The reality now being understood for what it is, Death on the Nile is delightful amuse-bouche. Neither too heavy nor too light in its undertaking, it whets the appetite for more crimes of passion or opportunity. The direction is competent as always from Branagh, the cast is clearly game (even if some deliver uneven performances), and the script is strong. All these together make for a rather intriguing mix and the desire for more.
Death on the Nile Special Features*
- Death on the Nile: Novel to Film – Explore the new vision for Agatha Christie’s classic novel Death on the Nile, and how Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green collaborated with Christie’s estate to bring a new twist to this story of love and murder. (15:31)
- Agatha Christie: Travel Can Be Murder – The story behind the book connects with Christie’s own love of travel, and especially Egypt and its secrets. Her legacy continues through her family and new generations of filmmakers and actors, all at once contributing to the immortality of her novels. (5:53)
- Design on the Nile – The setting, the costumes, the photography, all contribute to the Agatha Christie touch. We take a fun tour of this “ship of suspects” and learn details about the overall look and design of everything from the characters to the environment. (11:02)
- Branagh/Poirot – Kenneth Branagh is a one-of-a-kind artist who can switch hats with exceptional skill, playing Poirot one moment and directing the next. This piece pays tribute to Branagh’s ability to stay connected to his cast and creative team through it all. (5:36)
- Eight (8) Deleted Scenes (10:55)
- The Market (2:00)
- Poirot’s Cabin (0:15)
- Rosalie and Bouc Outside Temple (0:56)
- Windlesham Jogging (2:08)
- Poirot Discusses Case (0:42)
- Poirot and Bouc Approach Jackie (1:56)
- Confronting Bouc and the Otterbournes (1:15)
- Poirot Orders Books (0:58)
*bonus features vary by product and retailer
Available on HBO Max, Hulu, and digital March 29th, 2022.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD April 5th, 2022.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
Categories: Home Video, Reviews, streaming
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