Any discussion of a 20th Century Studios picture must begin in December 2017, when news first broke that Disney was purchasing pretty much all of the once-mighty News Corporation conglomerate. It’s important to remember the particular month of December 2017, and the fact that the corporate execs higher up surely saw the writing on the wall before the rest of the world did. This is likely why, in their last few years of operation as one of the most dominant movie studios on the planet, 20th Century Fox commissioned franchises for movies that honestly didn’t need sequels.
The most obvious example is Kingsman: The Secret Service, an admittedly wonderful film that was given a pathetic February 2014 release date. Yet it got a sequel that just happened to release in September 2017, and a sequel was greenlit pretty much immediately. After numerous COVID-related delays, The King’s Man finally did get released in December 2021 to a great collective sigh of relief that we wouldn’t have to sit through another goddamn trailer again.
Another prominent example is Murder on the Orient Express (2017), which just happened to release in November 2017, and a sequel was greenlit days later. The pattern seems obvious in hindsight: When a studio is underwater, they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by greenlighting a sequel to any modest hit, even if the film in question has no need for a sequel and nobody’s asking for a franchise. In the best case scenario, the sequel goes on to be an even greater hit and the franchise makes enough money to keep the studio afloat. In the worst case scenario, a blockbuster franchise film in the pipeline boosts the asking price for any conglomerate with an interest in purchasing the studio.
In any case, Death on the Nile (2022) was set for release in late 2019, but got pushed back a year due to production issues and quickly found itself a perpetual victim of bad timing and worse PR. Obviously, COVID was a factor, as Disney was perpetually gun-shy about releasing a film in 2020 after so many would-be surefire hits crashed and burned in that particular year. (Tenet, anyone?) The film might’ve stood a chance in 2021, but as I’ve said before, fucking EVERYONE was in a rush to get their films out the door in 2021 and I’d argue everyone suffered for it.
What’s worse, the film’s all-star cast had curdled significantly while the movie was sitting on the shelf. Armie Hammer turned into a pop culture pariah after a series of horrific allegations and his woeful mishandling of the same. Letitia Wright has also become a highly controversial figure, due to a history of transphobic remarks and anti-vaxxer falsehoods. Then there’s Gal Godot — of course she suffered the infamous tin-eared “Imagine” fiasco, but the double-whammy of Wonder Woman ’84 and Red Notice raised serious concern with regards to her limitations as an actor.
Thus the film got stuck with a February release in 2022. Hardly a sign of confidence. But luck finally favored the movie in a last-minute reversal, as director/star Kenneth Branagh had just picked up a Best Director nomination at the Oscars, one of an impressive seven nominations — including Best Picture! — for Belfast. A fortuitous boost to his profile, well-timed after the one-two punch of Artemis Fowl and Tenet.
Speaking of Belfast, the film opens with a prequel segment shot in black-and-white. This is where we meet a young Hercule Poirot (Branagh, of course) in the trenches of World War I. Long story short, we eventually learn that Poirot had a wife (Katherine, played by Susannah Fielding) who tragically passed away at some point after the flashback. Also, it turns out that Poirot’s signature mustache was grown out to conceal a wartime injury.
It bears mentioning that absolutely none of this has any basis in the source text. (Indeed, Agatha Christie went out of her way to keep Poirot’s origins and early life a closely guarded secret.) Still, the prologue establishes early and emphatically that love will be a prominent recurring motif throughout the picture. This story is all about crimes of passion, and invoking Poirot’s own tragic romantic history is a sensible way to make the case personal for him. Alas, while the characters spend a great deal of time mouthing off about love and how it can drive a person to (potentially homicidal) madness, I can only call it a “motif” because it never really congeals into anything coherent enough to be called a “theme”. We’ll come back to that later.
Anyway, the plot concerns a tragic love triangle that begins with Simon Doyle and Jacqueline “Jackie” de Bellefort (respectively played by Armie Hammer and a dynamic Emma Mackey). The two of them got engaged, just before Jackie introduces Simon to her good friend Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Godot). Six months later, Simon’s dumped Jackie and gotten married to Linnet. Thus a heartbroken Jackie is driven utterly bonkers with jealous grief and proceeds to relentlessly stalk the newlyweds.
By a stroke of luck (which isn’t actually a stroke of luck, but we’re not getting into that here), Poirot’s friends and connections rope him into the Doyles’ wedding reception, and on to their honeymoon cruise down the Nile. We don’t get to the actual murder until an hour into this two-hour movie, but rest assured that the bodies start piling high and quickly when we finally get going. So let’s meet our lineup of suspects/victims, shall we?
- Bouc (Tom Bateman), a close mutual friend to Poirot, Linnet, and Simon.
- Euphemia (Annette Bening), Bouc’s mother, obsessed with keeping her son single to spare him the inevitable pain of heartbreak.
- Linus Windlesham (Who knew Russell Brand had legit dramatic chops?), an aristocratic doctor and failed suitor to Linnet.
- Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), lawyer and surrogate cousin to Linnet.
- Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie, sporting an impeccable French accent), Linnet’s jealous and put-upon maid.
- Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo), a jazz singer who positions herself as a potential love interest for Poirot.
- Rosalie Otterbourne (Letitia Wright), Salome’s niece and manager, and also an old classmate to Linnet.
- Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), Linnet’s godmother and an outspoken socialite-turned-Communist.
- Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French), van Schuyler’s live-in nurse.
It bears mentioning that pretty much all of the above characters are either wholesale inventions of the filmmakers, or radically altered from their book counterparts. This is not necessarily anything to get angry over. When Agatha Christie herself adapted the book into “Murder on the Nile” for the live stage, she made a clear point of omitting Hercule Poirot altogether! While this gave Christie a break from writing the character, it also served the far more important purpose of throwing off anyone who might’ve already been familiar with the book and the solution to the whodunit. The changes made in adapting the book to film serve the same purpose beautifully, and I’ve got a hunch that the original author would’ve been okay with it.
That’s not to say the changes necessarily work, however.
Easily the most glaring additions are Salome, Rosalie, Bouc, and Euphemia, all of whom are film originals. (Yes, there was a character named Salome Otterbourne in the book, but she’s been altered past all recognition here.) Bouc and Rosalie are in love, but Euphemia won’t approve of the union because she believes that love is a wretched curse she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemies. In addition, we’ve got the perpetual Salome/Poirot flirtation, and we’ve also got a closeted same-sex relationship (no, I won’t say between which characters) invented by the filmmakers.
To recap, that’s two interracial romances and a same-sex relationship… in the goddamn 1930s. Given that particular setting, it feels like anything outside of a hetero-normative racially segregated union would be a much bigger deal than it is in the movie. Indeed, the film is too afraid to even hint at any sociopolitical message, unable and unwilling to spare any time for exploring what we might learn about ourselves and our present from the stigmas and persecutions of the past.
It’s like the filmmakers desperately wanted their messages about love and passion to register with a younger, modern, more progressive audience, yet they couldn’t figure out how to reconcile that with the regressive setting of the story. Thus the film’s statements about love and passion, in addition to any possible statement about romance outside the white heteronormative paradigm, come off as half-baked, incoherent, and noncommittal. And in a story that’s supposedly about how love can drive us past the point of madness, anything less than full-throated commitment simply will not do.
Oh, and that rich socialite who became a Communist? Yeah, that’s barely ever touched on. No relevance to the plot whatsoever, no greater socioeconomic point to be made. It’s just kinda there, just like the race element and the same-sex element.
That being said, the film is at its best when the actors know exactly what we came to see. Because let’s be real, nobody bought a ticket to this movie with the expectation of any grand sociopolitical statement. (Though it’s a wonderfully sweet little bonus when such a statement can be integrated and done well, as we’ve seen with Knives Out.) We came here to see a pulpy Agatha Christie whodunit potboiler. In other words, we came here to have fun, and that’s exactly what Kenneth Branagh delivers in his performance. Likewise, I really must give Russell Brand credit for acting his ass off as a potential suspect, Rose Leslie is delightful as the archetypal maid who might know more than she’s letting on, and Ali Fazal gets a pretty solid scene as well. Armie Hammer might just be able to salvage his career if he keeps leaning into his reputation and his knack for playing hate sinks.
Still, for my money, the MVP here is Emma Mackey. She delivered a wonderfully compelling performance from start to finish, always keeping me guessing as to how crazy Jackie really is. It’s a delightfully pulpy turn, exactly what this film needed.
As for Gal Godot… folks, I’m ready to call it — she’s a model. Godot can pose and look pretty for the camera all day. She’s got charisma to burn and she can smolder like nobody’s business. But then she opens her mouth and I remember that I’m supposed to see her as someone else. I’m watching her try to blend into a role, willing us to forget that she’s Gal Godot and pretend that she’s someone else entirely. She cannot sell that to save her life.
I want to believe that Godot might have a shot at a career if she leaned into it and made herself the female answer to someone like Jason Momoa or Dwayne Johnson. Make her into someone who plays the same character in every movie, and always with the one-joke premise that she’s impossibly awesome. Trouble is, Red Notice already tried that and it didn’t quite work, so I don’t even know anymore.
(Side note: Did you know Gal Godot is working on a Cleopatra biopic? Because seriously, Gal Godot wants that role so desperately, it fucking hurts to watch. So many huge stretches of runtime for this movie look like Godot’s audition reel for the part.)
Death on the Nile (2022) is a mixed bag. The filmmakers tried to add in some new potential suspects, make the case more personal to Poirot, and use these crimes of passion to speculate on the nature of love, all wonderful ideas in theory. Alas, the execution is completely incompatible with the source material. I’m sure the filmmakers had the best of intentions in trying to modernize the themes and ideas, but developing those themes and ideas to even the bare minimum would go entirely against the period setting and pulpy thrills so iconic to the original story. So it is that most of the supporting cast and a good chunk of the runtime is little more than filler. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that we don’t get our first dead body until the halfway point, which gives you some idea of how padded the film is.
The good news is that the core of the film is perfectly fine. Hercule Poirot, the doomed love triangle, the grisly murders, the process of following clues and solving the whodunit, that’s all perfectly fine. On those grounds, I can give the film a passing grade.