DEATH – AGAIN – ON THE NILE

Christie purists, we’ve had our day! 

Actually, that day lasted for quite a few years, through most of the 1980’s right into the millennium. You got your Warwick/Annis Tommy and Tuppence adventures and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. You got your Poirot . . . well, most of him. And now it’s time to face the fact that all of that has changed. It’s changed because it has to, because modern tastes have evolved and the classic Christies have almost all been done at least pretty well, some of them quite a few times. 

“My dear, it was a long, long time ago.”

Christie purists, we stand now at a crossroads: you can gather your DVDS or subscriptions to Britbox where you may and wallow in Hickson and Suchet, and sneer at the Branaghs who come your way and wonder just how long my rhyming will BE IN PLAY!! Me? I’m moving on. You see, I know all too well that: 

  1. In the Golden Age when Christie wrote, the puzzle was everything, and character took a secondary role. Open your eyes: the mystery has evolved, both on the page and the screen. 
  2. What’s more, the detective was a definite outsider, impervious to the emotional tsuris of every closed circle they entered, sent to define the problem, restore order, and move on. Nowadays, readers/viewers enjoy their sleuths with a healthy dose of their own tsuris. (See: all the incarnations of Inspector Morse or any series based in Scandinavia)
  3. In a modern world that is trying to reflect itself onscreen, folks stuck-in-its-time-attitudes toward gender, race, sexuality, and so on are fair game. (See: anything from the pen of Sarah Phelps, the last four seasons of Poirot, or the updated series about Miss Marple.)

With all this in mind, last summer I sat in a Zoom meeting with, among others, Dr. Mark Aldridge, who knows something about Christie onscreen, wouldn’t you say? I promised him I was going to develop a more open mind. My own come-to-Poirot moment had occurred with the opening of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. After complaining at fever pitch about every Sarah Phelps adaptation after And Then There Were None, I had made a knee jerk response about the new MotOE. Then I saw the film . . . and I really enjoyed it. Like any two-hour version of a 300 page-long book, it cut some corners, but the puzzle was essentially faithful to the original, and the diverse cast an asset. The train, too, was glorious, and while its perilous journey was artificially enhanced by a lot of CGI, it was fun to watch.

“Are you really looking at the train, mon ami?”

The biggest problem for most people was Branagh’s vision of Poirot himself. He was younger and could leap and run. He had had a tragic romantic past. Worst of all, his moustache was nothing like David Suchet’s. But these were, for me, irksome little details that hardly interfered with my general enjoyment of the film. Branagh was more emotionally present than Albert Finney. He was humorous without being clownish, which was the unfortunate direction eventually taken by Peter Ustinov. And while he wasn’t David Suchet, neither did he take quite the liberties with the novel’s emotional arc that Suchet had taken. 

Imagine, then, my excitement at the end of Branagh’s film, when it was broadly hinted that a sequel would be taking place on the Nile river, for Death on the Nile is one of my favorite Christies. Both of these books actually have much in common: they are classic examples of Poirot in foreign climes at operating at his best, they contain a large, international closed circle of suspects, their puzzle plots are audacious to behold and yet contain a strong emotional core surrounding the major crime.  However, the emotions in MotOE are so overwhelmingly tied to the central trick of the book that the feelings it engenders in the reader happen basically twice: at the revelation of the victim’s identity and at the denouement. Nile engenders feelings from start to finish, from the tragic love triangle that motivates the crime to the parallel domestic conflicts of the Otterbournes, the Allertons, to the comic question of Cornelia Robson’s love life. 

The biggest problem with adapting Nile for film is that there are twenty characters in the book, plus assorted others, who command our attention, and the puzzle in this, one of Christie’s longest novels, is rather complicated. That playwright Anthony Shaffer managed to cram so much of the original into his 1978 screenplay is a commendable feat. Most of the actual puzzle was left intact, which is good news for rabid fans but perhaps more challenging to the average viewer, who balked a bit at the 140-minute running time. Shaffer did two things to alleviate any potential hazards of so much plot: he reduced the number of characters from twenty to twelve, and he induced laughter with a tone that mixed melodrama with high camp, which was expertly handled by a charming cast of old and new stars. 

Death – and Laughs – on the Nile (1978)

I’ve always loved that film, but it has its problems. For me, the presentation of the central triangle is paramount to the success of DotN, and I always felt that it was miscast. Simon MacCorkindale was handsome and captured the earnest squareness of Simon Doyle, but his emotional range was thin. Mia Farrow portrayed Jacqueline de Bellefort as a waif, not the hot-blooded, hot-tempered young woman of the novel. She was only 33 at the time but seemed older. And Lois Chiles was as wooden as she was beautiful, plus Shaffer had sadly transformed the character into a Stock Murder Victim, the rich, rampant bitch. 

In the book, the Otterbournes have no motive to kill Linnet; nor has Miss Bowers or Dr. Bessner or even poor Louise Bourget. Here, Shaffer crafts original motives for them all. Miss Van Schuyler is a kleptomaniac in the book, a red herring to distract us from the real thief – but as the real thief has been cut from the movie, here she gets to steal the necklace. I understand the desire to make these characters more relevant to the mystery, for it’s one potential complaint about the book (one I don’t really share): so many travellers, so few motives. Oh, yes, more is made of the stolen pearls, so any of them was a potential thief; plus, there’s a terrorist, and a crewman whose marriage was prevented by Linnet. Still, lots of folks are there for color, to act as witnesses and subplots and other victims. 

Death on the Nile on a Budget (2004)

The 2004 episode of Poirot managed to squish the novel into 97 minutes and cut far fewer characters. The essential puzzle is intact but clearly truncated. We are in late series Poirot, so the humor of the early seasons is minimized and, for David Suchet, the focus of his character is on saving Jackie de Bellefort from moral ruin. As there already is a strong element of this in the novel, it seems an apt decision for an actor eager to focus on his character’s emotional life. Emily Blunt is a better actor than Lois Chiles, but her version of Linnet is no less unpleasant. And with so many characters sharing so much less screen time, there’s a bit of a rushed feeling here – although screenwriter Kevin Elyot manages add his own business, most of which “sexes up” the whole affair. 

Okay, I can feel you getting impatient, so let’s get to the matter at hand: Kenneth Branagh’s version of Death on the Nileopened in California yesterday after much delay due to, ahem,  scandals. It is the first movie I have taken myself to see at a movie theatre since before the pandemic began, and I walked into it with my eyes open. Branagh has extended the focus on Hercule Poirot’s inner life beyond even Suchet, and he has added some history, much as Sarah Phelps did for Poirot in her adaptation of The ABC Murders. Of course, it’s not the same history, but it accomplishes much the same thing, making Poirot a haunted romantic figure when he walks into M. Blondin’s London restaurant and first comes across the Ridgeway/de Bellefort/Doyle triumvirate. 

The things we learn about Poirot’s past? I’ll leave you to find those out yourself – that is, those of you who won’t get all snooty about going. I will only say two things about it: Branagh acts the hell out of it, and it leads in the last moment to an act that was probably the most shocking thing for me about the film and the hardest to reconcile with the Poirot I know. But then, that is why this introduction has been so long: we all have to make our peace with the fact that Hercule Poirot is bigger than any of us. Last year, his first book entered the public domain. He has been turned into a cartoon and multiple computer games. Anyone is entitled to purse their lips and say, “if it’s not Suchet – “ or “Ustinov – “ or whomever . . . But I’m here to tell you that Suchet himself has bid farewell to his version of the character, and some of us are eager for more stories and more interpretations and to just get on with our lives.

A sumptuous Linnet (Gal Gadot)

And let me tell you: Branagh’s interpretation of Death on the Nile has a lot going for it. It is a sumptuously beautiful film. A number of critics have chastised it for its use of CGI. I get that. It’s still a gorgeous movie, and I enjoyed looking at it. (I also enjoyed the score underneath all that beauty.) Screenwriter Michael Green has placed the focus firmly on the triangle and allowed the character of Linnet to be more sympathetic than ever before. Gal Gadot is a beautiful, if not far-ranging, actress, and she brings Linnet to life here, managing to shine over Simon and Jackie as Linnet should. Armie Hammer and Emma Mackay (whom I love in Sex Education) are perfectly fine in their roles, Mackay especially when she shares the screen with Branagh, but it’s Linnet who should grab everyone’s attention, and here she certainly does. (Green reduces the cast by making this sail down the Nile exclusively Linnet’s party, with only room for one crasher.)

There is a moment – not in either of the previous adaptations or in the book but definitely in Murder on the Nile, Christie’s own adaptation for the stage – that Green includes here right before Linnet leaves the salon for what will be her final rest. Jackie snarls something at her, and Linnet, who is almost out of the room, turns around, comes to Jackie  . . . and wishes her well. She tries to reach out to her old friend, unapologetically but sincerely, and then she leaves. Mackay’s reaction after Linnet goes is powerful, even more so if you have read the book and know what’s coming. 

A mesmerizing Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo)

The other thing I really liked about the film were the four actresses who played the female suspects. Yes, I love Angela Lansbury too, and I loved her as Salome Otterbourne, but the transformation of the character into a black jazz singer and Rosalie into her savvy manager/niece elevates those characters into something really fine. Sophie Okonedo gives us a fascinating Salome with a rich history and not a drop of pathos, while Leticia Wright takes Rosalie, one of my favorite characters, and makes her into a powerhouse. Both women are given more to do, and it doesn’t all make sense in the end: Rosalie is said to be an old friend of Linnet’s and even fills some of the role of the book character Jim Fanthorp. But when we get to some past revelations, I couldn’t understand where or how the two women could be friends. 

Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French are reunited to play Marie Van Schuyler and Miss Bowers. I know they have a strong comic history together, but there they, ahem, play it straight. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) They have a completely different role to play here from the novel or earlier film incarnations. Marie, for one, is a Communist and fulfills some of the plot business previously assigned to the now-absent Mr. Fergusson. But she is also cast here as Linnet’s godmother, and this is a weird dichotomy that isn’t explored. 

Marie Van Schuyler and Miss Bowers (Saunders and French, together again)

The men don’t fare as well, at least in the way they’re written. Instead of Andrew Pennington, we have cousin Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal) who follows the arc that Pennington plays, which makes less sense given the different history he shares with Linnet. And for some unfathomable reason, Dr. Bessner from the novel is replaced by Dr. Windlesham, who also happens to be Lord Windlesham, with whom Linnet briefly considered marriage in the novel. Here, he is invited to her wedding party for some unfathomable reason and mopes about. Russell Brand plays beautifully against type, but Windlesham’s presence makes the romantic triangle a rectangle and dilutes things that you don’t want diluted. 

Finally, there’s an added plotline about which I am completely up in the air. Tom Bateman, who played the charming M. Bouc in Orient Express returns as that character in a mystery where he in no way belongs. At first, it seemed that he was there to replace Colonel Race or, at least, act as a Hastings with whom Poirot could bounce off ideas. But gradually Bouc assumes a major role in the proceedings, taking not only the Race/Hastings role but that of at least three other major book characters. To give you a hint as to who one of these is, this time Bouc is accompanied by his mother, Euphemia, sourly played by Annette Bening. 

Mother and son (not the Allertons, but the Boucs)

I love Bateman, and I know why Green/Branagh went in this direction with his character. But this forms the crux of the struggle that Christie purists have with modern adaptations. Branagh and Green are fiddling with the book’s plot in order to shift the focus to the detective’s emotional life. This is a very recent element in the life of the mystery. Classic fans like their detectives to remain mostly detached, to come away from a case emotionally intact and ready for the next one. It’s not like the puzzle plot of Death on the Nile is irrevocably damaged or becomes unrecognizable by the insertion of Bateman – although the key scene where Simon is shot feels incredibly rushed, and the climactic showdown undermines a lot of what was set up earlier involving one key character. 

The vast difference between Branagh’s film and the 1978 version can be summed up in the final shots on the boat. Both films have a moment when the corpses are led in a procession to shore. On the 70’s steamer, it’s actually played for laughs, and Bette Davis gets the punchline! In the new version, the whole procession is tragic, but the tragedy centers not on the circle effected by the murders . . . but on Poirot. 

And then, in the final moments . . . it’s all about Poirot with that shocking moment I hinted at earlier. I admit, I had a problem with that moment; still, it makes you wonder exactly where we will find him when – or if – we get to Branagh’s third (and, reportedly, final) Christie adaptation. Some folks in my circle have been murmuring, “Mesopotamia,” but I have heard rumblings that the last film will adapt Roger Ackroyd. Given what happens in Nile, this makes more sense to me. Branagh’s Poirot will retire, devastated by his life, and go to King’s Abbot to grow the “vegeTAYble marrows”. There he will solve Ackroyd’s murder and finally open himself to love again – with Caroline Sheppard. 

I can see it now. No, really . . . 

53 thoughts on “DEATH – AGAIN – ON THE NILE

  1. I have yet to be able to make it to see this (thanks Covid!) so I was glad for a chance to read your thoughts about this. I also enjoyed MOTOE more than I expected and had high hopes, even though some of the casting here doesn’t thrill me (Armie Hammer wasn’t going to appeal much even before said scandal – I am happy to read that Brand was better than I anticipated). Hopefully I get a chance to see it at some point in the next week or two…

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  2. Haven’t seen it yet, so can’t comment on the movie, but regarding this sentence:

    “Branagh’s Poirot will retire, devastated by his life, and go to King’s Abbot to grow the “vegeTAYble marrows”.

    Considering what you wrote about Bouc here, he may very well play the role of Dr. Sheppard as Poirot’s latest Watson. 😉

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      • I did mean it more literally. I’m not sure if Roger Ackroys is filmable either, but znxvat na rfgnoyvfurq erpheevat Jngfba punenpgre gur xvyyre, pbhyq or n jnl.

        However, without wanting to I came across a very big spoiler, and now realize the difficulty.

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  3. I’ve yet to see the film. I’ve a feeling I will enjoy much of it, and some of it will make me cringe. I doubt I will strongly love or hate the film (and I didn’t strongly love or hate the Branagh Orient Express).

    I don’t go on about “He’s not Suchet” or “He’s not Ustinov” because I see the whole focus on the detective figures as a mistake. Yes, it may be the way things have been going for many years, but it was not what Christie was about, and making the meal about the garnish always weakens a work compared to others. The superiority of Christie is based in emphasizing her particular strengths. She’s better at characterization than she’s given credit for, but only in puzzle plotting is she among a handful of the greatest. A Fred Astaire film which emphasizes his singing above his other skill would have a similar problem. I quite easily adjust to alterations, but when you change the emphasis of what a work is centrally about, that work loses its specific “advantages.”

    And though I don’t think any Nile adaptation should be about its Poirot, I’d like to put in an extra word of defense for Ustinov’s Poirot. The Christie Estate (I. e. Rosalind) made a big point to Suchet that audiences should never laugh AT Poirot (“only smile with him”). But Rosalind was not Agatha, and Agatha never said any such thing. Christie wrote a character who was vain, fussy, extraordinary-looking, and who often offered malapropisms. Why would she write such a character if she didn’t intend some humor at his expense? Ustinov’s character has some foibles and some foolishness, but he also convincingly demonstrates deductive brilliance, warmth, and wisdom. I don’t see these characteristics as inconsistencies, and it is only his physical characteristics that make him unlike the Poirot of the novels (I also like Suchet’s interpretation, I just don’t care for him peddling all that bullshit about having doing careful research, which is easily disproven on page after page of his memoirs).

    I enjoy your balanced view, and I look forward to tomorrow’s matinee…

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    • I actually enjoy Ustinov, except in those adaptations where I feel the fault lies elsewhere ( Appointment with Death and the TV movies), but I think his version of Poirot works best in Evil Under the Sun where it plays best opposite that group of suspects. It works perfectly fine in his version of Nile though, and I enjoyed it a hundred times more than the Suchet version.

      I won’t make any more comments on this new one. I know how you will feel about all the personal Poirot stuff, but there’s a change of one clue and one MAJOR event over which I think you’ll have opinions. Go see it, come back, and we’ll talk.

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      • Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it.

        By the way, people left Murder on the Orient Express grumbling, because they said it could not help but be discrepant, as Poirot is informed of a murder “on the bloody Nile” but Poirot needs to be on the Karnak before Linnet is killed. I pointed out that there need not be a discrepancy , as their were several possibilities that would allow for it (many of them involving the idea that Linnet’s death was not the one referred to). I’m wondering, though, did they make it logically consistent, or just not worry about it?

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        • Just not worry about it. There is a hidden reason that Poirot came to Egypt revealed late in Act 2, which I don’t want to spoil, but it has nothing to do with a murder.

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    • I always wonder about that quote. I’m making my way through the early seasons of Suchet’s Poirot for the first time and there are plenty of jokes which are at Poirot’s expense. Not in a harsh way, but definitely at his expense. Perhaps no-one noticed because they make so many more jokes about Hastings.

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  4. Your review made me curious, but not curious enough to watch the film, so I did the next best thing and read the Wikipedia page for the movie. I agree the ending seems highly shocking! The Wikipedia page also contains a quote from Branagh about Christie’s worldbuilding which is hilarious given the changes he made.

    Ironically, the one book that would give Branagh legitimately a chance to do Acting with a capital A without adding silly back-story is one book I think he is absolutely not planning to adapt for several reasons, Curtain.

    I hope they don’t do Ackroyd next, people should read it without being spoiled by a movie. I vote for the Big Four, Branagh can be an action hero, and the plot is a shambles already so he can write his own.

    As for more realistic suggestions for him to adapt, I think there are several possibilities. He probably wants to retain the central puzzle, so it has to be something that works on-screen. (I think a number of impersonation plots would cause problems here.) Maybe Peril at End House, depending on how they played his relationship with Linnet. Let Nick remind him of Linnet and let Poirot be determined that he won’t fail to stop a murder this time.

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    • I’m not sure Peril at End House would work, as its central deception has been employed so often since (on weekly TV shows, etc..) that time that it no longer would fool most modern audiences (the problem being that once the possibility is even considered, it’s power is almost entirely removed). It was still a fairly (though not entirely) new concept at the time, but it would take an almost endless degree of reconfiguration to make both deceptive and satisfying.

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      • Though it doesn’t have a flashy locale, I think Murder on the Links could be remade well. It has a central plot concept that I think is excellent, and a lot of other stuff that SHOULD be changed! Hopefully, a smart screenwriter could recognize which is which.

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        • I’m going to address all three of your last comments here, Scott:

          1) It’s quick, but at the beginning they do address the “call to Nile” from the end of MotOE. Listen to the dialogue with M. Blondin.

          2) I absolutely agree about Peril at End House. Every TV procedural/mystery has done this trick.

          3) I disagree about Links for Branagh. He’s going for a three-part emotional arc about Poirot, hinted at in the first and deeply explored in the second. If he is only doing one more film, I think he would want to resolve these issues. On an emotional level, for what it’s worth, Links is Hastings’ story, and I can’t imagine Branagh introducing a new character and having him be the focus of the romantic side of the plot. The two titles I have heard mentioned are Mesopotamia and Ackroyd. The first would certainly appeal to a man who has done two foreign travel mysteries. The archaeological setting would be lovely, although it is fairly close to the Nile. And yet, aside from drumming up a romance with Amy Leatheran, I can’t see this case getting Poirot emotionally involved without a serious rewrite. (That’s not to say Branagh/Green wouldn’t do this.) No, the idea of giving up the job and retiring makes sense as a starting point. (It’s even mentioned in the film; you’ll see). Whether there is any hope for Branagh’s Poirot to find love, the case in King’s Abbot does restore his desire to work.

          That’s my two cents worth . . .

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    • I’m not sure about the people should read Ackroyd without being spoiled by a movie, because that twist has been done a million times over since Christie did it. I’m not sure Ackroyd has the same power today, so I”m fine with a movie version.

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      • People say it has been done a lot, but I have not seen it many times outside Christie. Admittedly, my reading habits tend to be very GAD-oriented, but I am sure there are others with similar habits.

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        • I can give you 20 GAD novels with the Ackroyd gimmick. Probably more if I’m allowed a few days to pore over my reading journals. I’ve covered at least half those 20 on my blog without ever alluding to Ackroyd or Christie. And that doesn’t include the two times Agatha did it again herself. That plot motif is almost as overused as “the butler did it” which I am encountering way too often these days in my GAD reading.

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          • Yes, the Ackroyd gimmick has become commonplace. Several authors including Brian Flynn and Paul Halter have used this gimmick. The earliest use of this gimmick was in 1884 in the novel (rot 13) Gur Fubbgvat Cnegl ol Nagba Purxubi

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  5. Brad – thanks for the balanced review. I liked Branagh’s MoTOE far more than I thought I would (e.g., thought Michelle Pfeiffer was excellent). I was going to go to the cinema yesterday to watch DotN but couldn’t get excited about wearing my N95 mask for 2.5 hours so didn’t.

    I normally find something good in any Christie screen adaptation. Perhaps like you, I am such a fan that any new way to way to experience her work after re-reading her so many times is appealing … except for the later Phelps’ ones which are unwatchable bilge (e.g., ABC, Pale Horse, etc.). So overall what’s your verdict … do you recommend this one for a true Christie fan?

    P.S. Mesopotamia indeed could be the next one given the exotic location as others mention above. Another Evil Under the Sun adaptation also would provide the interesting setting but offers a far better puzzle. Perhaps another choice is Murder for Christmas with an end of year release to draw in movie goers. If the criterion is an emotional portrayal for Branagh in his last of three appearances, then why not Curtain.

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  6. Scott, as someone who finds most of the Phelps adaptations repugnant, I heartily recommend this. That doesn’t mean some things about it may not upset you. I think the ’78 version is still my favorite – it takes its time setting up the puzzle better, doesn’t scrimp on the “big” scenes, and has that amazing cast of suspects – but there are things about this one that I liked more. And I agree – a true Christie fan wants her presence in our life to be dynamic, not merely nostalgic. The war currently being waged under my post on the Christie Appreciation page feels like such a waste of energy and vitriol. There are many more important things to get mad at!

    I still vote for Ackroyd, which is probably impossible to adapt to film, just to see what Branagh does with it. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is another good idea, although Branagh would have a challenge with all those interchangeable family members. I’m not really interested in seeing another Evil Under the Sun just now. The Ustinov was quite fun, and the Poirot episode was not. As for Curtain, well . . . I would go see it, but the last thing I want to do right now is watch Poirot die. Plus, there has been no mention of Hastings in the other two films, and he is a mandatory presence in this novel.

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    • If we are sticking with the travel/exotic locations, I’d like to see Appointment with Death, but with the play’s ending not the book.
      Hell, since Annette Benning was such an effective bitch in this one who hates Poirot, she could return as the Lady Westholme character for some comic relief.

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  7. I am a Christie Purist who looked with disdain on some modern interpretations. But your article gives me pause. And I thank you for that. I will have a much more open mind in future.

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    • Robbin, I consider myself a purist as well, insofar as Christie was a magnificent plotter and I can’t understand why someone would make her original plot unrecognizable. The more recent Marple series was guilty of that time and time again; sometimes, however, they did a good job. Inserting Miss Marple into Towards Zero is a weird choice, but the episode that came out of it was essentially faithful to Christie’s plot – and the book might not have been adapted as a stand-alone. (There’s a terrible French adaptation that also destroyed the book.) But The Sittaford Mystery and Murder Is Easy were abominations.

      I don’t want. to come off as someone who thinks he knows better; my opinion is no more “correct” than anyone else’s. All I’m asking is that people try not to rush to judgment all the time. I fear that one of two things would happen: either we purists are powerful enough to end ALL future adaptations, or we aren’t . . . and we will become THAT group, the enclave of grumblers who will never find a Christie film worthy of our attention and thus will dwell in the past.

      I’d love to hope that some of the best adaptations are yet to come!

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  8. I just saw the Branagh Nile. I liked it a lot. I still prefer the Ustinov version— primarily for the thoroughness and clarity of the puzzle plot aspects, but there was a great deal to like about this version.

    I did find a few things amiss. I didn’t mind most of the character changes, but the idea that Euphemia would object to Bouc marrying Rosalie because she was AMERICAN seems to be overlooking a pretty damn big elephant in the room circa 1937, even in the more progressive climes of Egypt and London. THAT was just as big a “love that dare not speak its name” back then, and the fact that it’s not even commented on is wonky. Likewise, I think the “dirty dancing of Simon and Jackie (and later Simon and Linnet) was more than a bit too hot and heavy for ‘37 (yeah, people had wild sex, but in public things were more reserved). And speaking of the “love that dare not speak its name,” I thought they were working so hard to avoid making French, Saunders and Russell Brand not goofy comics that they were given little opportunity to do much of anything (though one of those ladies moments about the figures of Abu Simbel [“I really like their hats”] was one of the biggest laughs at our showing).

    I’m not sure the mechanics of the crime are quite clear, and though I loved the clue of the green jacket in the painting, I doubt oil paint would suit the purpose of the killers (though again, I did like the clue of Simon getting angry at Louise about the polish— Michael Green does understand the concept of clueing, even if he sometimes does a sloppy job of it). And where did the tube go? I don’t think that mechanics of the alibi as presented in the denouement are made quite clear— certainly not as clear as in the Ustinov version. I didn’t mind the omission of the “J” clue (after all, that only serves to suggest that someone is attempting to frame Jackie, and that fact is sufficiently evident without it) but I did really miss the shouted “tell, the story from the beginning” bit (Poirot mentions his warning shout in the denouement, but I couldn’t recall it from the initial scene, and at rate it’s not nearly as clear). On the other hand, Louise’s conditional tense bit struck me as TOO transparent, but then my knowledge of it is “cursed” as I was looking out for it.

    Outside of the scandal, I wasn’t familiar with Armie Hammer’s work and, though I thought he was fine in the film, he didn’t make all that much of an impression (I found the Simons of the Ustinov and Suchet versions more charming and interesting). Both Gal Gadot and Emma Mackey were excellent, though as others have mentioned, I don’t think Mackey was given enough material to work with. Sophie Okonedo was terrific, as were Tom Bateman and Letitia Wright (though as I mentioned before, I don’t think their story was handled correctly). Brand, French, Saunders, and Rose Leslie were all underutilized, IMO, but all did a great job with what they were given. As for Branagh, I thought he was much better here than in MOTOE. His digression regarding his enjoyment of Salome’s music was another highlight.

    This Karnak was too big for my me (perhaps an effective statement in the wastefulness of the rich, but just not to my liking). But CGI or no, some of the nighttime shots of the Egyptian monuments were gorgeous and atmospheric, and I wish they had appeared in the ‘78 film. The epilogue didn’t quite work for me, and though the prologue did, my girlfriend assures me that you can’t grow a mustache over scar tissue (not that my girlfriend has a mustache, but she knows about these things). The ending of the Suchet version is still my favorite, and the most emotionally effective.

    It’s not nearly perfect, and I still prefer the Ustinov version, but I think it’s significantly better than Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and— as I said of that film, and feel much more so about this— far worse things have been done in the name of Agatha Christie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was going to make the exact same critique regarding the color blind casting. Like I am all for color blind casting and giving minority actors more opportunity. Absolutely. But the movie wanted it both ways. They wanted to be inclusive AND say something about racial prejudice BUT then also gloss over it when it got in the way of the plot. The scene about the swimming pool was brilliantly acted by Sophie Okenodo and Letitia Wright. But then it makes no sense that no one is batting an eye at Rosalie and Bouc, or Salome and Poirot. And, as you pointed out, Annette Bening being such a bitch about how unsuitable Rosalie is for her son, but then she doesn’t mention the obvious elephant in the room of the difficulties of an interrelationship in the 1930s. It makes no sense. Even if we can accept, which given her character is difficult, that she herself is enlightened on racial issues and would accept an interracial couple, she should at least be like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, fearful of the challenges her child would face.

      Not to mention, the swimming pool story-ok, so Linnet became a better adult, but as a child LInnet had bad examples and absorbed racial prejudice from her daddy, who was apparently an unapologetic racist asshole. How exactly, then, did she grow up with a “cousin” of Indian descent who was apparently considered part of the family?

      I loved the color blind casting in theory, but it has to be internally consistent and make logical sense.

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  9. “And where did the tube go?”
    You must have gone out for popcorn, Scott! They showed the tube being flung from the deck . . . where it nearly hit Rex Brewster as he was rowing by . . .

    I think yours is a very fair assessment of the film. Given the story Salome tells Poirot about Linnet’s behavior as a child, we’re not venturing in color-blind territory here. I can understand the wedding party accepting the Otterbournes as a famous singer and her manager, but Euphemia is really an outsider, and her prejudices are inconsistent. (Even though she hired Poirot, you can see what she thinks of this foreigner every time she looks at him – and he’s only a Belgian!)

    I was also struck by the whispered conversation before Bouc gets killed. How on EARTH could it be overheard? But I’m glad you liked the carmine clue, even though I figure it was only there to give Euphemia more of a position in the story.

    I think the downside to giving Linnet a more prominent place in the story (which I liked) and focusing on Poirot’s life (which I . . . liked) is that all the other characters were given short shrift, especially the male suspects and, sadly, Jackie. It works out much better in ’78. However, I liked the serious tone here; this is a romantic tragedy, and while I will always love the performances of all those great actors in ’78, the less stellar presence of this new cast and the change in tone works for me as far as Death on the Nile goes.

    As for your girlfriend’s info about the scar and the mustache . . . . what do these people think we are – stupid?!?

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  10. Great writeup, Brad. I think appreciating the evolution of our expectation in the balance of the mystery and emotions of the plot is really central to this film. Bouc replacing Colonel Race as our linking character really is the clearest example of that, as his presence means they don’t have to take the risk of complicating things for themselves should they want to explore one of the other Colonel Race stories in later films.
    I also did appreciate that from the throwaway lines about the band in the novel’s opening they extrapolated a whole new characterisation for the Otterbornes. There are some great one-liners from them that speak to the new emotional pieces of the novel.
    You also make me wonder if I’ve been too harsh on Branagh’s portrayal (though some might already call me an apologist). Considering how he manages to extract the goofs, sincerity and stilt of the previous portrayals of the role, it really makes me appreciate how well balanced the portrayal is, even if Suchet is ‘my Poirot’. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the moustache-cover make a return after being an underutilised gag in Branagh’s previous outing as Poirot.

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    • I’m not saying the Bouc storyline is perfect – the whole second half of the film feels rushed compared to the careful laying out of the situation in the first half – but it is ingenious. Every adaptation cuts and consolidates characters. Here, Bouc stands in for Colonel Race (he plays more of a Hastings role since, unlike Race, he has no authority, but then Race served as that novel’s Hastings anyway), Tim Allerton, Mr. Fanthorp (who in the novel helps with the aftermath of Jackie’s shooting Simon) and even, partly, Salome Otterbourne!

      It’s that last bit that gives the film one of its biggest shocks, and I have to say I was devastated, partly because I like Tom Bateman so much and partly at the shock of the switch in characters. What made it worse was that if you know the plot, you can see it coming as soon as that scene starts. And while I totally get anyone being upset by that switch, in the Branagh landscape it makes total sense to what he’s trying to do because this version is as much about Poirot the man as it is about the crime. This, as Scott Ratner explains, completely subverts the role of the detective in classic crime fiction, and that subversion upsets a lot of classic fans just as it has become a prerequisite for modern detective stories.

      Had Branagh kept Mrs. Otterbourne the third victim, one could argue that both Poirot and the audience would have been upset – he due to his flustered but obvious attraction to her and all of us because Sophie Okonedo’s performance was one of the richest in the film. She made that character admirable rather than pathetic. Killing off Bouc, however, does everything Branagh wants. The reversal of Bouc from Watson to criminal thief is a surprise (I saw the links to Tim Allerton immediately, due to Bouc’s mother being with him, but I didn’t think the script would go THAT far), and the fact that he is killed while Poirot is grilling him will lead the detective down a dark road of self-blame which ultimately gives him the vulnerability to shave off his mustache and reconnect with Salome.

      Writing that out makes this feel like the end for Branagh’s Poirot – a sad but maybe hopeful end? – except there’s supposed to be a third movie. We’ll see if that ever happens . . . and if Salome Otterbourne ends up joining him in that final adventure! (Boy, that will make a lot of people mad!)

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      • I have nothing against making a detective’s life as or more important than the puzzle plot… it’s not my favorite type of story, but I certainly see nothing wrong with it. But if that’s one desire, I suggest that perhaps Christie is the wrong person to adapt. Of course, she’s more marketable than other authors, but to me that suggests a dubious motive in selection.

        That’s emphasis on the lesser skill is also why I don’t hold The Hollow in the Christie pantheon: It may indeed be Christie’s greatest triumph in terms of characterization, but that puts it as her greatest triumph in an aspect which, despite being better than her reputation in that area suggests, is still not her greatest strength. Again, I think the Fred Astaire analogy holds— Astaire has a pleasant singing voice, but a Fred Astaire film that features his greatest singing but deemphasizes his dancing is still not in league with any Astaire film centered around his dancing skill.

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        • I can certainly agree that Christie might not be the best author to adapt for emotionally-driven narratives centered around their detective, but you’re going to have a lot better shot convincing investors in your film that they’ll get their return from a Christie adaptation than anyone else, as disappointing as that may be.
          The upside of it is that if we hadn’t had differently-thinking adaptations of classic mysteries, there would probably be a lot fewer people interested in carrying on the tradition today. I think Sherlock Holmes, for example, is as popular as he is today purely because each generation that was raised on the stories grew up, went ‘gosh those weren’t as good as I remember’, but their nostalgia compelled to improve on Doyle’s work in the myriad adaptations we’ve seen. Regardless of how well Branagh has adapted these Poirot stories on their original merits, he’s done a phenomenal job being part of the current resurgence of the genre.

          Liked by 2 people

          • That’s true, though the difference is that Sherlock Holmes was always more of a balance between character and plot. Today’s incarnations of Holmes— while very different— maintain a similar valance to the original stories.

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  11. Hopefully I am not too late in throwing in a few thoughts of my own here, but it took me a little while to really digest the movie. As I mentioned in my Facebook post, I think I liked this overall more than MOTOE (not that that was a bad film at all). The approach here just worked better for me and the emotional stakes of the narrative felt a more natural integration of Green’s highly-emotional method of adapting Christie. On a visual level, I thought it was stunning and even if the CGI was too prominent in places, the film was still sumptuous from its production design (though Scott is right that the Karnak was probably too big, by gosh it was a fascinating Art Deco monstrosity nonetheless) and its costume design was equally excellent. You can detect Branagh’s fine Italian hand behind the camera (but I have always been an apologist for his OTT filmmaking style) and I am still thinking about the uninterrupted shot as Jackie is lead away from the salon after shooting Simon.

    I do wish to put forward a little bit of theory, one that I admit comes from a place of relative naivete being as (relatively) young as I am. You can argue that both Branagh films gloss over some of the mechanics of the plot (though the suspect interviews here were preserved and not handled quite as quickly as in ORIENT EXPRESS), and I wonder if this is more a product of the times than anything else. The slow approach that the ’74 MOTOE and ’78 NILE take toward the material just wouldn’t fly with today’s audiences. At my screening opening night, I was shocked by how many young people were there to see the film; most of them, if I had to guess, being unfamiliar with the source material and they could not sit still for scene-after-scene of interrogations and methodical clue evaluation. Enough critics already complained that Branagh’s NILE takes too long to get going, but its hour of scene-setting I thought was great. But maybe the newer films also dwell less on the performances simply because they are trying to preserve the mystery. When the ’70s films were released, I think a strong argument could be made that the books were still very much in the cultural zeitgeist; audience members en masse were going to see the novel adapted to the screen knowing full-well how the plot would work itself out and they were along for the ride as a parade of familiar faces were each given their chance in the spotlight. Now, I expect those uninitiated audiences expect to be surprised by whodunnit and, therefore, the characters of the film have to be kept to the margins for fear that over-exposure to any one of them might give the game away. (By this logic wouldn’t CURTAIN be an interesting way for Branagh to go out playing the character and REALLY shock people?) It is, I admit, a half-baked thought, but one that I have been mulling over and I wonder what your take on it all might be.

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    • I do understand the need to keep the interrogations speedy for today’s audience. But the denouement is a place for clarity, and I think even the most modern audience would’ve appreciated a slower, more lucid explication of the clues at the end. The denouement is no place to rush. Indeed, slow it down and it will seem to go by more quickly, because there will be fewer watching eyes glazing over with fatiguing confusion.

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  12. By all means, modern audiences have neither the patience nor the interest in that (sorry, Nick, I know you hate this) “dragging the Marsh” portion of a mystery tale. The ’78 version tempted to alleviate that somewhat with all those amusing “what if” flashbacks where we get to see Bette Davis remind us of sweet Charlotte as she shot Linnet or Angela Lansbury careening drunkenly along with the gun. I would argue that this detracted from the mood I would like to see when I watch Death on the Nile. Green’s over-the-top script came closer to my expectations.

    I had almost forgotten that single take shot around the ship! It is freaking brilliant to me because it creates a real time moment that starts and ends with Simon! A new initiate into the plot would hardly dream that in the time WE traveled around the boat that Simon could get up, run to his cabin, shoot his wife, return, shoot himself and be ready to greet the next arrival. Knowing the solution made me appreciate this shot even more as it happened, just as knowing the plot made me fret for Bouc as soon as his final scene began.

    I think a Branagh/Michael Green adaptation of Curtain would be unbearable. We all know how that one ends, and I’m sure they would wring out ten times the pain from the audience that the book requires. I suppose the argument FOR that one is that it is the one book that actually deals with a crucial life event for Poirot. Can’t we just have one of the better mysteries, like Ackroyd or Five Little Pigs? Maybe he can take the delightful After the Funeral and turn it into a true dirge . . .

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  13. I originally wondered if Curtain could be the next Branagh Poirot as well. But you’re right, this risks becoming an overwrought mess focusing on Poirot’s emotional state when dealing with the culprit versus the wonderful plot.

    The same happened in the later Suchet portrayals. For example, Suchet’s Murder on the Orient Express turned Poirot into a tortured Catholic struggling with the religious consequences of his actions. Ruined that adaptation for me. Plus then in Suchet’s Curtain portrayal, Catholicism had no bearing on his actions including how he dealt with the murderer. I don’t mind some changes in these new adaptation, but the fun is diminished for me when an amazing plot/puzzle is over-shadowed by a self-indulgent lead actor.

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  14. For sure, going into the movies less as an Agatha Christie fan, and more as a general mystery fan, is probably the best way to enjoy many adaptations. But that can be a little bit difficult, when there are only a limited number of adaptations made. If they do decide to adapt Roger Ackroyd, American fans can at least hope for competing adaptations soon.

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  15. *spoilers*

    One thing I liked that they did-one of the biggest critiques lobbied at Nile is “unfairness”-and it’s one of the few times I think Christie earned the “unfair” label-because Poirot finds the bullet hole in the table offscreen and the reader is not given that vital clue; he just mentions it in the confrontation scene. The 78 movie did the same thing.

    The movie made the bullet a blank-a wonderfully simple solution to where did the bullet from the fake shot go, that I wonder Christie didn’t think of it herself.

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  16. There are news of a third adaptation, which does not sound like Murder of Roger Ackroyd at all. To quote: “It’s post-war Venice and an adaptation of one of the lesser-known novels. “

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    • Well, that’s mysterious!! Of course, there are a few Christies that have been adapted to death, and I wonder if all the other ones can be considered “lesser known.” At any rate, color me intrigued!

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  17. The 1974 MOTOE is my favorite film. It defines what old-fashioned STAR POWER meant, and was a mountain gale of quality and class after decades of increasing degeneracy. Branagh made a travesty, sez I, especially of Poirot himself. Just a couple of steps away from wearing a cape and lucha libre suit, and FLYING under his own power… But, >>guilty pleasure admission<< like an addict, I fixed on what was left of the old resonance, even though Branagh's seemed like a slapped up "mystery weekend" done with an outrageous budget. I will give him credit for the mustache effort: Poirot-of-print was a little old egg-shaped man (head & embonpoint) with a tamed and sculpted version of a walrus mustache–something that would have been familiar to immediately post WW1 readers. Filmmakers, beyond-the-canon character-lifters, etc., ought to be true to the original or BE original, themselves. I was surprised that M.C. Beaton liked Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin: Snakes and bastards! They might have had Jennifer Saunders! …And I'm wondering, then: How much of VERTIGO's plot was lifted from (Christie's) TAKEN AT THE FLOOD.

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    • I fault nobody’s reaction, positive or negative. What angered me in the discussions on Facebook after this and other reviews were posted were the people who sneered at opposing viewpoints. Every one of us has a different limit as to the changes or re-imaginings we’re willing to accept, and everyone needed to enter Branagh’s MotOE or Nile understanding that there would be changes. At 55 -57 when he made MotOE, Branagh was arguably too young to play the detective, and he certainly played him younger than that. If “action hero” Poirot ticks your “never” list, then that’s a point against him. I didn’t really mind it, given the fact that this version seemed fifty at most – plus, I had seen the horrendous MotOE starring Alfred Molina, which is unbearably bad, and he plays Poirot like a sexy young spy.

      The multicultural cast is another element that some amateur critics called “woke” and unnecessary. Of course, one would never find this in Christie. And yet if we don’t start producing more inclusive adaptations, the audience for her stories will shrink and die – and, I think, deservedly so. And while the issue of race wasn’t pertinent with each casting decision (turning the Swedish nurse into a Latin-x nurse was merely a reflection on Penelope Cruz taking the part), sometimes it WAS pertinent, and that added some interesting new factors that, admittedly, were not in the original but certainly reflected the international element (an important one in the book) of the passengers on the train.

      As for Taken at the Flood vs. Vertigo . . . I don’t really see it. SPOILERS BELOW . . .

      Vertigo deals with a man murdering his wife by using his mistress as a double for the victim and the detective as a dupe. The impersonation in Flood is utilized quite differently The romantic triangles in both are completely different as well. Hitchcock already had the source material to alter as he saw fit: the novel Vertigo!

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  18. I never saw anything but trailers for Branaugh’s MOTOE because I couldn’t stand his appearance and you know I hate rewrites. I’m sorry but you can’t take someone else’s timepiece and mutilate it into another time zone and social construct. Miscagenating couples in that era were unheard of. A Cuban doctor could no sooner have traveled 1st class on the Orient Express than a Moroccan peasant.

    I will pass on DOTN, I thought Ustinov’s version was adequate, despite being horribly miscast. Farrow was awful. I liked Suchet’s version, but turning Mrs. Allington into an incestuous dragon was a bridge too far for me.

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  19. Hiya Brad, finally got round to seeing Branagh’s film (last couple of months have been very trying so very late with, well, everything). I really enjoyed your detailed post on the various adaptations and can’t fault you on any of it really. Branagh for me is a splendid Poirot, and I loved the prologue and epilogue, which to me were utterly unexpected and also very moving. They clearly draw on PATHS OF GLORY and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP for inspiration and create something really special. Also, the first quarter of the film plays like a musical and felt like a 30s Paramount picture such as ANYTHING GOES, which again worked unexpectedly and well. Making it all about Poirot’s emotional travails is a bit tiring at times but as you so rightly point out, this does pay off and other characters also get the treatment. The use of the Bouc character really shook me up (I mean, you don’t expect to actually care about the characters in a Christie movie, do you?) – and Gadot’s version of the Ridgeway character is by far the most sympathetic and well-realised thus far. I hope they do a third – apparently to be set in postwar Venice, which makes me think it might be a version of TAKEN AT THE FLOOD perhaps? Anyway, just wanted to belatedly chip in and say thanks for the great post.

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  20. I don’t dislike either of the Branagh films, and I feel genuine resentment at the unwillingness of Suchet fans to recognize that both his Orient Express and Nile are really more faithful to Christie than several episodes of the Poirot series (Suchet is a terrific actor, IMO, but the Suchet apologists deny all logic in their efforts to defend the often series transgressions of that series).

    But the further I get from my initial viewing of the Branagh films, the stronger grows my sense that are both “muddy” in their presentation. Perhaps in an effort to make the characterizations richer, perhaps out of a desire to make the films more visually dynamic, or perhaps just out of a desire to distinguish them for earlier versions, I believe clarity has been lost. Particularly with Nile, there are a lot of great things in it (I would loved to have seen some of Branagh’s nighttime views of Egypt, or his revelation of Louise Bourget’s corpse, in the ‘78 film), but the memory of it is somewhat of a jumble (I have watched it once on television since, and this did nothing to alleviate that sense).

    Remember the use of italics in Christie denouements? These always had the effect on me of saying, “REMEMBER THAT? SLOW DOWN…. THINK ABOUT IT!” And these are the very same moments that are practically leaped over in the Branagh adaptations, while he gives us lengthy variations on the idea that Jackie is jealous of Linnet—- an idea that is sufficiently conveyed in the one shot of her watching Linnet and Simon dance. There are problems with the Ustinov film, I grant (and I totally concur that the pre-denouement hypothetical flashbacks are a bad idea), but I still feel it generally demonstrates the best way to convey a Christie puzzle Plot.

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