Review: “Death on the Nile”

In 1937, Agatha Christie added yet another book into her “Hercule Poirot Mysteries” collection. Put on the same pedestal as “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express”,  “Death on the Nile” instantly won global acclaim as one of the early 20th century’s most gripping murder mysteries. The story stems from the murder of wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) during a honeymoon trip to the Nile. All suspects are coincidentally also on this trip, and detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is put to the challenge to solve the case. Last summer, I had the great joy of holding the book in hand, but what drew my attention were the bright, bold letters dramatically announcing the movie’s major motion movie release in February. The idea enticed me, yet my expectations for the film were dashed—somewhat unsurprisingly—as soon as I stepped foot in the movie theater. While the film had its merits in capturing the story in unprecedented ways, it was, yet again, subordinate to its source material. 

Ironically, fundamental elements such as setting depiction and clarity of speech fell second to the book on screen. One would expect the film, a visual medium, to depict the setting—namely, the Nile—in a more thorough and precise manner. Yet, the production’s choice to entirely develop the Egyptian environment from a green screen somehow makes the movie less immersive than Christie’s writing. Artificial colors fill the screen; the oversaturated color of the river and poorly rendered trees sitting nearby clash violently, and a 5000-year old Pyramid of Giza is suddenly painted with a tacky shade of gold. More importantly, the clarity of the spoken words in the movie cannot compare to the written words in the book, an issue noticed throughout the movie. Tom Bateman’s character Bouc suffers particularly from this problem; when introducing the characters, he speaks too fast, leaving the audience in confusion. Especially since he is responsible for presenting the movie’s ten key characters who each have complex relationships and motives, Bouc’s fast speech fails to establish the solid context needed to understand the rest of the film. With its plot relying on a clear exposition which it cannot properly convey, the movie thus fails to keep its audience engaged in the main narrative. 

However, it is important to applaud the movie for surpassing the book in one particular aspect; no matter how easily accessible character introductions are in the book, Agatha Christie simply creates too many. Director Kenneth Branagh, on the other hand, approaches this issue by merging some roles to establish ten main characters instead of the original fifteen. For example, Branagh’s interpretation chooses to draw from both trustee Andrew Pennington with lawyer James Fanthorp to create Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazel), a lawyer relative of Linnet Ridgeway whose potential motive is jealousy and inheritance. In contrast to the book, the average moviegoer is much more aware of each character––now more well-developed, multi-faceted, and better characterized––and their role in the movie.

But even with its merits, the movie’s drawbacks still stand out like a sore thumb—the movie’s adaptation of Hercule Poirot feels less elegant and more haphazardly put together. As a French-speaking German detective, Hercule Poirot naturally mentions a few French idioms and speaks with a heavy yet elegant French accent. On the page, this elegance is highlighted with his words in French italicized. They are highly distinguishable and up to the reader’s own interest to understand their meaning. However, on screen, though Branagh eloquently executes his role as Poirot, his French idioms are often arbitrarily interspersed with his excessively fast general speech. As a result, there is little for the viewer to differentiate between the two different languages, decipher the English, and try to use context clues to piece together the French. This problem shows the production’s further lack of care when you realize that it could be easily ameliorated with the use of subtitles, a technique implemented by other bilingual films. Finally, Branagh arguably forces a French accent that is no longer elegant but in fact, offsetting. As Poirot, Branagh has the most lines in the movie, yet unfortunately, most of his speech is left misunderstood, entirely undecipherable, or a complete misrepresentation of his refined character in the book. 

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film was its exclusion of the heart of the story: the actual process of Poirot’s deduction. Out of an attempt to compile a 400-page-book into a two-hour film, the movie kept most of the storyline yet excluded one of its most climactic moments. There may have been some difficulties in trying to capture Poirot’s entire inner monologue, which lasts a total of twelve pages, but the movie’s execution of the scene fails to craft the adequate build-up to the conclusion that Poirot comes to. Out of the need to quickly explain what happened, the movie’s Poirot only gives the viewer a conclusion. He leaves the viewer with an accusation, but completely chooses to leave behind the brainstorming and development process of his idea. This is the most exciting part of the entire story—the chance to truly highlight Poirot’s genius—yet Branagh’s two minute long segment of deduction captures none of those qualities and fails to create the satisfying climax and resolution that the story deserves.

If we were to evaluate “Death on the Nile” as an original movie, it by no means is unwatchable. But as an adaptation, it severely falls short of and does not represent Christie’s original creation. In my eyes, several scenes and lines were misunderstood, causing a perpetual confusion that lasts throughout the film. The depiction of the Nile and broader Egypt could have been thought out more carefully. The ending and “detective reveal” is simply too hastened, failing to provide a sense of satisfaction and resolution to audiences. Overall, I would give this movie a 2.7/5. As an avid murder mystery reader myself, this was the first on-screen adaptation I watched; with this experience in mind, I’m thinking of sticking with my books.