Known as the Queen of Mystery Fiction, Agatha Christie is one of the most widely published and lionised authors of all time. A fan of detective novels from a young age, she wrote her first detective fiction titled The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916. It was her first published book (in 1920) and featured her most famous detective character Hercules Poirot. The fictional Belgian sleuth with a ‘magnificent moustache’ appeared in Agatha Christie’s 33 novels, two plays, and 50 short stories. Christie’s works have been adapted for movies and television from the 1920s. The first on-screen appearance of Hercules Poirot was in the 1931 feature-film Alibi.
Over the years, various renowned actors across the world, including Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Ian Holm, and John Malkovich have embodied the role of Hercules Poirot. English actor and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh is the latest in the long line of actors to portray Poirot in the two multi-million dollar Hollywood adaptations. Aided by screenwriter Michael Green, Kenneth Branagh has also directed the two screen-versions of Agatha Christie’s most popular murder mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.
Agatha Christie 1937 novel Death on the Nile, like most of her crime fiction, is a locked-room mystery. A murder is committed in a remote, isolated area and the pool of suspects is limited to the set of people who are confined to that particular space. Besides, in a locked-room mystery, the tension lies in the possibility of this murderer claiming more victims. In Murder on the Orient Express, the ‘locked room’ is a stranded luxury train, which hosts 14 strangers including Poirot. In Death on the Nile, the murder suspect is one among the passengers, aboard the posh river steamer, cruising through Nile.
Michael Green’s script includes certain bold and interesting changes to the source material. In fact, Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile doesn’t open with the titular mystery. He rather opts for an origin story of Hercules Poirot and the reason behind his famous moustache. We get to know monsieur Poirot’s tragic romantic past. Since, passion and romantic love are the predominant themes of Death on the Nile, the prologue lends some weight to the subsequent proceedings.
The central plot of Death on the Nile opens (in 1937) with the two love birds: Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). The lovers’ plans for their future crumbles when Jacqueline introduces Simon to her friend Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), an American tycoon and a famous socialite. Poirot happens to be a silent observer of what transpires between these three individuals. Six weeks later, while sightseeing the Pyramids of Giza, Poirot runs into his friend and protégé Bouc (Tom Bateman). Incidentally, Bouc and his controlling mother Euphemia (Annette Benning) are in Egypt to celebrate the wedding of their family friend Linnet with Simon Doyle.
Bouc takes the popular detective with him to the wedding party. Soon, the jealous Jacqueline crashes Linnet’s party. In fact, she’s stalking the couple and trying to ruin their Egyptian honeymoon trip. Bouc also introduces Poirot to other key players in Linnet’s circle. From an envious ex to a Godmother, and a trusted cousin, Linnet seems to have enveloped herself among people with ulterior motives.
In an attempt to avoid Jacqueline, Linnet rents a luxury boat called S.S. Karnak, and invites aboard her close social circle. The only stranger in the cruise is Poirot, whose services are sought out by Linnet in order to watch out for trouble. However, a murder is committed in the steamer which is stationed in the middle of the Nile. Now Poirot relies on his unique crime-solving methods to reveal the identity of the killer.
Though not shot on location, Kenneth Branagh and his cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ mesmerising visual compositions perfectly evoke the epic grandeur of Egypt and the tranquillity of the Nile River. Branagh and Green take time to anchor their mystery in the sublime backdrop of the Nile. At the same time, we are so invested in the Egyptian scenic route that one might love to expand the horizons of their voyage, like our charming ancient Egypt explorer Rich Wilde in the Book of Dead Slot. Of course, the gears shift and the scenic atmosphere paves way for a tense and riveting locked-room mystery.
As usual, it’s immense fun to witness Hercules Poirot’s high-spirited investigative methods. The ending is literally a double-shocker, though the final shot offers some hope for our beloved eccentric sleuth. Kenneth Branagh is all set to return as Hercules Poirot in A Haunting in Venice set to release September 2023.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’