DEATH ON THE NILE (2022)

February 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. For us Agatha Christie fans, a certain amount of trepidation exists every time a new movie or TV version of her work hits. Stress level was reduced a bit this time since director-actor Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green are back following their collaboration on Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017). Although the star power this time isn’t quite at the level of ‘Orient’, it seems Mr. Branagh has grown quite fond and confident of his own Hercule Poirot, the Belgian super-sleuth.

Director Branagh takes an unusual approach with a black and white Prologue from 1914 as a young Poirot shows flashes of his intellect as a soldier in WWI. The real purpose of this segment is to show Poirot was once a young man in love, and then a wounded soldier in love, and then a broken-hearted wounded man who would go on to become the world’s greatest detective. The prologue also provides backstory on the infamous mustache that is so much a part of Poirot.

We then flash forward to a 1937 London speakeasy where a fastidious Poirot fusses over dessert while watching the formation of a shaky love triangle unfold on the dance floor as Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo, with singing vocals from Sister Rosetta Tharpe) belts out her bluesy tunes on stage. Initially it’s Jacqueline de Bellefort (relative newcomer Emma Mackey) in the throes of lustful dance moves with her fiancé Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer in the last gasp of a once skyrocketing career). Things change quickly when Jacqui’s former schoolmate, Linnete Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), makes her show-stopping appearance in a glittery metallic gown. Flash forward again, this time 6 weeks, and its Linnete and Simon tying the knot at the picturesque Cataract Hotel in Aswan on the River Nile. See, Linnete is an heiress to her less-than-scrupulous father’s fortune, and Simon had no trouble trading up. Jacqui, on the other hand, doesn’t take it so well.

Of course the fun part of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries involves getting to know the players and watching as the clues reveal themselves, and then how Poirot handles the big reveal. This film’s only real weakness is the character development of everyone not named Hercule Poirot. We only skim the surface of Euphemia Buoc (Annette Bening) as Buoc’s (a returning Tom Bateman) disapproving mother, Dr. Windlesham (an unusually reserved Russell Brand), Linnete’s chambermaid Louise (Rose Leslie), Linette’s Godmother and her “nurse” (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, respectively), family attorney Andrew (Ali Fazal), and Salome’s niece and manager, Rosalie (Letitia Wright), the proverbial sharpest knife in the drawer.

So what do we get? Well, first and foremost, a fully formed Poirot. Branagh seems to have embraced the character and the mustache, having a blast with his scenes. We also get stunning work from cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos, as he films the beautiful people, the beautiful wardrobes, and such sites as the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, Ramses statues of Abu Simbel, and the excellent set piece known as the Karnak luxury steamer. There are some metaphorical effects inserted that periodically startle us, and seem unnecessary, but then over-the-top moments are not unusual in film presentations of Christie’s writing. She passed away in 1976, and now there are almost 200 film and TV projects associated with her work.

Love and betrayal are key elements here, and for fans of the original book and the 1978 film version, comparisons are unavoidable. Ms. Mackey’s jilted lover stalker is a marked improvement over Mia Farrow’s character, while Salome and Rosalie and terrific additions. Ms. Saunders and Ms. French follow in the footsteps of cinematic heavyweights Bette Davis and Maggie Smith, and your choice of Branagh or Peter Ustinov as Poirot is one left up to you. It’s tough to beat ‘whodunnit escapism’, though it’s a personal choice on which of Christie’s stories serve up the best puzzle pieces on the big screen.

Opens in theaters on February 11, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

November 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who doesn’t love a good whodunit? Don’t we all find a bit of guilty pleasure in being the mastermind who solves a fictitious murder case? Has anyone ever been better at crafting an intricate murder mystery than Agatha Christie? Why all the questions? Well, that’s nothing compared to what “probably the world’s greatest detective”, Hercule Poirot, must answer amidst the foul play aboard the sleek, luxurious, and snowbound Orient Express.

This latest film version has Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN) with the adapted screenplay and Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as the fabulously mustachioed Poirot (with his own take on the iconic super-sleuth). Like the near-perfect 1974 version, this latest adaptation succeeds in capturing the theatricality, while avoiding any stodgy staginess. Director Branagh shot on film and it pays off in both the stunning snow-covered mountains and landscapes, as well as the tight, precisely-blocked interior shots around the exceptional set designs.

Fans of the novel will notice some shifting of character names, professions and backgrounds, although the vast majority of the story remains intact … including the early murder that occurs not long after the film ingeniously introduces us to each of the characters. The cast is strong and deep, and in addition to Mr. Branagh, features: Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. All are suspects – well, except the victim.

If you haven’t read the novel or seen a previous version, know that the fun is in ride. Follow along as Poirot dispenses zingers throughout, while maintaining a most precise commitment to balance in all things. He is an exacting and fastidious man, and as entertaining as he is skilled in crime solving. Note that the photograph he keeps of his one true love Katherine, is actually a photo of young Emma Thompson (Branagh’s real life wife). Enjoy keeping track of the clues and hints, while also tracking the widely diverse personalities, excuses and alibis. Most of the many characters only have a couple of key scenes, and it’s quite fun to see what these talented performers make of their moments. Daisy Ridley, Lucy Boynton and Derek Jacobi make the most of their time, while Penelope Cruz overplays hers. Other than Branagh, the star who shines the brightest is Michelle Pfeiffer (fresh off a killer performance in MOTHER!). She continues to remind us just how talented she is, and no, your ears aren’t playing tricks … that’s Ms. Pfeiffer singing “Never Forget” (lyrics by Branagh) as the closing credits roll.

Ms. Christie’s outstanding novel was first published in 1934, and is somewhat based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and her own train-riding adventure. It’s a wonderful and perplexing read … one that will have you changing your mind multiple times on who you believe to be guilty of murder. It’s obviously a personal favorite. There have been numerous movie versions over the years, and none have matched the excellence of director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film with an incredible all-star cast alongside Albert Finney’s Poirot. Though this most recent movie doesn’t reach the timelessness of that one, no movie can be expected to capture the detail and maze-like structure of the novel. It’s still quite fun – and a true joy- to see the pages come to life (irony intended) on the big screen.

watch the trailer: