To adapt Shakespeare’s dramas so that they plausibly retain their cultural cachet while also utterly gratifying the basest commercial palates is one of our culture’s distinctive, if not distinguishing ventures. And chief among those who so venture is Kenneth Branagh. But since 2017, beginning with “Murder on the Orient Express,” Branagh has set aside the Bard and taken up Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories—burdening himself as usual with the mantle of the title role—now in “Death on the Nile.”
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
At first glance, the film (now streaming) seems to be standard Christie-fodder, more or less resembling the novel on which it is based and familiar to the public via two previous screen adaptations. It features the quintessential Poirot-troupers: a naïve heiress, an apologetic aristocrat, scheming socialites, tenderfoot romantics, rueful domestics, overbearing mothers, and so on.
Likewise, there are the familiar Poirot-plot points: the murder, investigation, plenitude of conspiracies, and eventually tragic resolution provoking a melodramatic lecture on character, motive, and the nature of the human condition. Of course, with his signature sensibility for contemporary taste, Branagh supplements the story wherever Christie’s was lacking, adding in, among other things, a class-crossing lesbian romance.
Nevertheless, there is one element in the film that yields unusually poignant insight into Branagh’s adaptive approach: Armie Hammer. That is, Hammer, one of the film’s leading men, just prior to the film’s release was “canceled” after former associates accused him of a variety of inappropriate (and in some instances, illegal) behaviors driven in part by an apparent proclivity for fetishistic cannibalism. None of the legal allegations seem to have stuck, however. Still, in the wake of the scandal, Hammer lost virtually all his slated gigs, including leading roles in the “Next Goal Wins,” an underdog sports comedy; “The Offer,” a series about the making of “The Godfather” films; and “Gaslit,” a romantic comedy in which he would have costarred with Jennifer Lopez.
But cancellation as a cultural phenomenon entails a sort of unreflective immediacy. As with the biblical scapegoats of yore, it’s contrary to the logic of the spectacle—to the extent that it’s even ridiculous to consider—that the designated victim be considered anything but that. (Solomon in his wisdom never bothered using his legendary seal to hear the scapegoat’s side of things.) Our culture’s expiatory spectacle, however, is far flashier than that of the Ancient Israelites, entailing a far greater logistical cost. Movies take a great deal of time and money to produce and if a leading man happens to be singled out by the sacral powers-that-be in a period in-between when a given project is finished filming and its release, directors can find themselves in a bind.
Or, at least, they used to. Advances in editing technology are slowly catching up with the demands of ideology. Though it’s still extraordinarily expensive, it’s now relatively feasible for determined directors to replace a canceled actor in post-production. For instance, Ridley Scott (coincidentally, one of “Death on the Nile’s” producers) did just that in “All the Money in the World,” swapping out Kevin Spacey for Christopher Plummer.
The fact Branagh didn’t do likewise with Hammer demonstrates not only his ability as a functionary par excellence of the reigning ideology, but his understanding of it. To wit, audiences attending screenings of “Death on the Nile” familiar with the Hammer scandal will surely appreciate the similarity between his character as it’s been made out in news coverage and that of Simon Doyle, the character he plays: a handsome sleazeball whose dubious romantic avocations facilitate abuse and ultimately murder. Pointedly, however, Hammer’s character gets his comeuppance and dies.
Indeed, not only is Hammer’s appearance in the film not at odds with his cancellation, but in perfect accord with the two-pronged nature of customary expiatory spectacles. In the analogous Levitical ritual, there wasn’t one, but two goats: one to bear the people’s iniquity into the wilderness and the other, for Providence, to be slaughtered and thereafter have its blood carried past the sacred veil and sprinkled in the Holy of Holies. So, one Hammer wanders Hollywood as a designated outcast while his mirror image is slaughtered in the theater for spectators.
In such a way, Branagh makes Hammer fit for his purposes. But in a similar sort of way, Branagh does likewise with the whole of Christie’s “Death on the Nile.” In both cases, he doesn’t deal with the substance of the story at hand but rather adapts it as needed. For instance, though Agatha Christie infamously held what nowadays would be reasonably considered xenophobic and racist views—which were well-reflected in her Poirot-stories—Branagh doesn’t at all forthrightly take issue with them. Rather, he simply peppers in, for example, an interracial romantic subplot for Poirot that Christie undoubtedly would have found objectionable.
Indeed, like Hammer (allegedly), Branagh has his own proclivity for cannibalism. Aptly, in contrast to the way in which the corpses of great kings that had actually died along the Nile were reverently preserved for posterity, Branagh (ostensibly a dramatist himself) takes the dramatic corpora of greats and slices and spices them for commercial consumption.
For instance, in “Death on the Nile”—aside from the lesbian and interracial romantic interpolations—Branagh fabricates major characters, backstories, and motives to no other apparent end other than to give the story a clockwork relatability reminiscent of a Netflix procedural. In his 2000 adaptation of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” he honeys Shakespeare’s most exquisite play into an all-singing, all-dancing, chromatic pageant set against the less-than-subtle backdrop of the eve of World War II. And in his 2006 adaptation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (oh so daringly set against the backdrop of World War I) he adulterates every sublimely symbolic element into unambiguous dross, rendering, for instance, a dragon into nerve gas, and the mystical trial-by-fire near the opera’s end into a romp through No Man’s Land.
Nonetheless, Branagh doesn’t deserve full credit for his adaptive mien. He is simply following in the footsteps of his modernizing Renaissance forebears, who upon discovering the mummies of Egypt promptly ground them up and offered them for sale on apothecary shelves. Then again, the mummies of Egypt were never so dehumanized as Christie’s “Death on the Nile” has been commercialized. The soul that gives flesh substance isn’t of the flesh at all. But a story has no substance other than that which constitutes it. And once Branagh has his enterprising way with one he leaves it utterly bereft of its original spirit: what’s left is a commercial bore.