A master detective, two newlyweds, several greedy aristocrats and a loaded .22 caliber pistol blend into a recipe for disaster in the newly released, “Death on the Nile”. Wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), with her new rags to riches husband Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), struggles to enjoy her honeymoon aboard a luxury Nile River cruise, while being surrounded by several shady figures who wish her dead. Linnet has trouble living in peace while those around her are persistent in taking advantage of her riches. This all changes however, when Linnet stops living all together, at the hands of one mysterious fellow passenger. World renown Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), conducts his investigation among the other voyagers, who all had motive to kill poor Linnet and are all guilty of concealing deep secrets linking them to the victim.
“Death on the Nile”, based on the 1937 Agatha Christie novel of the same name, was first adapted for the screen in 1978 with Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Lois Chiles and several other big stars. While the original and the remake tell the same narrative, both versions hold flaws and accomplishments of their own. For any fan of the whodunit genre, or anyone who grew up playing Clue, the elements in these films will seem familiar. There is a confined space, here being the cruise ship where a murder occurs. Several weapons come into play that conveniently disappear. A number of colorful characters then take the stage, each pleading innocence, while hiding much darker intentions. When it comes to these films, the guilty characters prove to be very fun, for nobody is ever truly innocent, but each individual is layered vibrantly with subplots of their own.
The true star of the show is the over-the-top professional sleuth, Hercule Poirot, played by Ustinov in 1978 and Kenneth Branagh in 2022. The older version portrays Poirot more comically, while the latter presents the character as being grittier and more emotional. Branagh is exceptional in creating small obsessive-compulsive habits that add to the complexity of the detectives’ character, while Peter Ustinov remains flatter in these areas but stronger in wit and humor. Somewhat out of place, the new film also kicks off with an action-packed origin story of the master detective’s lengthy mustache.
As far as remakes go, the new adaptation of “Death on the Nile” did a phenomenal job building off of its source material. In the original, the suspect passengers were not very methodically connected to Linnet Ridgeway as they were in the recent. Branagh’s adaptation is clever in having each suspect be a guest of the newlyweds on their Egyptian sojourn, intertwining their subplots much more closely into Linnet’s life. However, while every individual had an interesting narrative the film spent too much time building their backstories. Love was also used too frequently as a possible motive which grew distracting after so long and tended to muddle the overall theme of the mystery.
One of the most remarkably done facets of both films is the actual investigation aboard the ship. Poirot conducts several interviews of the passengers, getting their perspectives on the night of the incident. Dialogue is the key to uncracking much of the mystery, for each word a character says, no matter how miniscule, is a clue to the killer’s identity. For people watching the film for the first time, you are bound to miss several small pieces of the puzzle that unravel in the climactic last act. Action is present while detective work is done, and more bodies start piling up in the ship’s freezer. Branagh’s film handles its action in the form of chase sequences and fist fights, while the original is more subdued. One compelling scene from the original unfortunately did not make the recent cut, in which Poirot’s life is almost taken by a vicious cobra planted in his cabin.
At the climax the twist may be somewhat obvious, however it's how the twist is executed that leaves an impression. For this critic, the original does it best when revealing the details of the murder and announcing the killer’s identity. The latter rushes through the reveal in a series of obnoxious gasps and wide eyes, culminating in a cheesy Hollywood standoff. The original better captures emotions within the guilty party and those around them. Most importantly it’s not afraid to give the audience time to process and make sense of the twist.
Whether you watch the 1978 or the 2022 version of “Death on the Nile”, you’re in for a fun mystery. Original films usually receive more praise than their remakes, but these two are fairly on par with each other. Sure, they both need work in some areas but each excels in its own way, offering viewers a fun campy mystery. The original version of “Death on the Nile” can be viewed on the Criterion Channel with a subscription, while the new version is currently out exclusively in theaters.