Pieces don’t come together for ‘Death on the Nile’ production

As it leans away from its more interesting underlying themes, Death on the Nile leans hard into its fantastic glamor and soapy sensibilities. It certainly knows its audience, and it’s no crime that audience isn’t me. Image courtesy 20th Century Studios.

3/10 After a long list of production- and pandemic-related delays, the second installment in Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie Cinematic Universe – seriously is finally here.

Egypt, 1937- Renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, who also directs and produces) attends the wedding of Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot). The celebrated heiress met her husband, Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) in a London nightclub six months earlier when Doyle immediately dropped his similarly short-tenured fiancé, Ridgeway’s lifelong friend Jackie de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), a moment Poirot also witnessed by chance. The betrayed de Bellefort has haunted the couple’s steps through their entire romance, leading them first to hire Poirot for security, then to bring their entire wedding party on a private cruise down the Nile, a cruise de Bellefort infiltrates. Soon, murders start to compile onboard.

Death on the Nile is swingy. Parts of it are high quality and the cast is having a great time, but they’re very lenient with some technical details, and some moments you get a clear sense that they just didn’t have enough ideas to fill a movie. Having the camera move around in a circle does not a full scene of dialogue make, but we get into that more than a couple of times.  

Branagh continues his series of Agatha Christie adaptations, because that’s what he does. He rose to fame obsessively adapting Shakespeare, and now he’s started on another vast library of work. Historically, Branagh has used film as a platform to showcase its component parts – Shakespeare’s scripts are so great, Christie’s stories are so great, my performances are so great, let’s put them in a movie so the whole world can see them. He doesn’t use film as an art form with its own merit, and it’s hard to produce good work from that mindset. When the photography is just a means to an end, when a story’s coherence and flow is secondary to fitting your favorite parts into it, maybe those parts will be good, but the whole inevitably suffers.

This focus is why technical defects tend to pop up suddenly in his films, and Death on the Nile has one of the best examples in the transition between two of its first scenes. The jazz club where de Bellefort introduces Doyle to Ridgeway is dark, sultry and incredibly grainy – the movie was shot on 35mm film stock, and this is the only moment where that feels like a deliberate choice. The core love triangle is established crudely but effectively in a could-be wordless scene of Doyle more-than-half fucking de Bellefort on the dance floor, then immediately moving onto Ridgeway. The lights, scattered but shockingly bright, naturally create highlights and deep shadows for the lovers to move into and across while also highlighting the empty spaces of the club as all the extras stay just as close to each other.

Then there’s a hard cut to six months later, and Poirot is in a green void that’s been haphazardly dressed up as the Giza Necropolis. Photography was scheduled for Morocco and Egypt, but for some reason, they never left England, and you can tell. On the big screen you can see the pixilation around where Bouc (Tom Bateman) has been drawn in on one of the pyramids. On a scene that’s meant to be a sunny desert day, you can see what looks to have been the only light in the soundstage gleaming off one spot on Branagh’s and Bateman’s foreheads. This is completely unacceptable rear-projection work in 2022.

We do get a very nice red and silver theme going, particularly in the richly colored dresses of the nightclub scene, setting the colors of passion and wealth against each other. 

I think I just may not like whodunits very much, at least not ones where tension is meant to come from me as a viewer actively trying to guess who the killer is. I don’t engage with movies that way, I try to be present-minded and with what is on the screen instead of what isn’t. The genre can still be very rewarding in stories that are also meant to entertain in their present moment, such as like the Harry Potter series, which are famously structured as whodunits, or the more recent Knives Out, where the drama and comedy is almost completely independent of the foul play being detected. Death on the Nile in particular has an, again, crude but effective story marrying the “have and have-not” emotions of romantic jealousy and wealth inequality and seems like it would be much more interesting from the killer’s perspective.

Every time I see something “new” from Branagh, I just want him to do some original work, and he has. Due to various instances of pandemic-related scheduling nonsense, Death on the Nile comes out just after Belfast, Branagh’s first truly original effort, received several Oscar nominations, despite Belfast being written and produced after Death on the Nile was already complete. It’s an odd and revealing moment in his history as a filmmaker. All his comments about continuing Christie adaptations ad infinitum were before his much more personal work found success, so we’ll see where this goes. Maybe we’ll look back on this moment as a kind of rebirth.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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