Monday, March 7, 2022

Divertissement: Death on the Nile

Sophie Okonedo in Death on the Nile.

Watching Kenneth Branagh’s entirely entertaining remake of Death on the Nile, the Agatha Christie mystery, I thought I’d finally guessed what he and the screenwriter, Michael Green, had been going for in their 2017 adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Death on the Nile, which revolves around the murder of an heiress named Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) on her honeymoon – which is also an extended wedding party on a boat on the Nile – is played as a combination of high comedy and melodrama. In Orient Express the tone went out of whack: Green and Branagh took the material, which was inspired by the kidnaping of the Lindbergh baby, way too seriously, so the high comedy (a feature of Christie whodunits) got lost and the narrative played as if the filmmakers thought they were making a tragedy. The movie was glum, and once the train got stopped in its tracks halfway through, the glumness hung in the air like a bad smell. Even a first-rate cast, headed by Branagh himself as the vain Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, couldn’t rescue it.

But giving Death on the Nile enough drama to make us care about the characters turns out to be a good idea, and Branagh and Green manage it without weighing the movie down. The first film version, in 1978, had a clever script (by Anthony Shaffer) and star turns by Peter Ustinov as Poirot, Bette Davis and Maggie Smith as an unpleasable dowager and her caregiver, and especially Angela Lansbury as a flapper gone to seed; it looked beautiful (Peter Murton designed it, Anthony Powell dressed the actors, and Jack Cardiff lit it) and the Nino Rota score functioned like exquisite gift wrap. But John Guillermin’s direction was rather ponderous – surprisingly, since the last picture he’d directed was the eye-popping, emotionally satisfying 1976 King Kong with Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and Jessica Lange. Branagh’s doesn’t feel like a star spectacle, like almost every other Christie movie I can think of, but really it is. There are Gadot, the appealing heroine of Wonder Woman, and Branagh, and Sophie Okonedo in the Lansbury part, Salome Otterbourne, Letitia Wright (from Black Panther) as her daughter Rosalie, Armie Hammer as the mourning groom, Simon Doyle, and Annette Bening in a role that Green invented, the possessive mother of Poirot’s young friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). The English comedy team Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French have inherited the Davis and Smith parts. Russell Brand is Dr. Windlesham, who grew up in the same circle as Linnet and whom everyone expected would marry her. Everyone is familiar from TV and other movies – except Bateman, whom I’d seen only as Florizel in Branagh’s stage production of The Winter’s Tale; Rose Leslie as Linnet’s French maid; Ali Fazal as Linnet’s financial adviser; and Emma Mackey, the talented, beautiful, huge-eyed ingĂ©nue who plays Jacqueline de Bellefort. Jacqueline is engaged to Simon until Linnet, her closest friend, steals him away from her, and she’s still so obsessed with him and so furious with Linnet that she keeps turning up everywhere the wedding party goes. However, nobody in the picture acts like a glamorous Hollywood personality in a murder mystery. Everyone gives a performance, and everyone is good. Okonedo, whose role has been converted into a sophisticated blues singer, isn’t merely good. Reading her lines in a moist southern accent out of Tennessee Williams, sashaying around with an air of worldly sagacity and sexual finesse, performing Salome’s numbers with a combination of brio and heat, she’s the most convincing blues diva since Queen Latifah played Bessie Smith.

I thought we might be in trouble in the opening sequence, where Poirot is a young soldier in the First World War. But though this section has its moment of sadness, it’s framed to provide an early glimpse of the character’s prodigious gift for solving puzzles, and it ends wittily, with an explanation of how he got his celebrated preposterous mustache. I enjoyed all of the changes Green has made to the story, which underline what he takes – correctly – as the theme of Christie’s novel: the extent to which people will go for love. The characters fall along a spectrum of perspectives on love, with Bening’s cynical Euphemia Bouc at one end and her son, a true believer, at the other; it’s fun discovering where each of them stands, how some conceal their feelings and others shift. Green’s smartest alteration is making Linnet more complicated than either Christie or the 1978 version allowed her to be – although Lois Chiles’s acting in the first movie is so appalling that it’s just as well Shaffer didn’t ask her to convey anything more advanced than a stereotyped rich bitch. Gadot’s Linnet is flawed but sympathetic, so you feel something when she dies. One of the other characters says of her at one point that it was possible to both love and hate her.

Branagh and his usual cinematographer, the indispensable Haris Zambarloukos, repeat some of the sinuous, mirrored effects from Orient Express; it’s a gorgeous bauble of a movie. The setpiece sequence that culminates in the discovery of Linnet’s corpse is dazzlingly staged and shot. Death on the Nile is a surprise. I can’t think of another Agatha Christie picture I’ve enjoyed as much.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.     

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