Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel was adapted into a 1978 film that won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. That novel was later adapted into an episode of television in 2004. Now, it’s the source of this film by Kenneth Branagh who was nominated for multiple Oscars for Belfast (2021). When the film opens, it does the reverse of what Belfast does. Belfast starts in color and transitions to black-and-white. That film starts in some time period and goes backward into the past. Here, this film starts in black-and-white and transitions to color, which makes sense because it starts out in the past, specifically 1914, and goes forward into 1934.
Starting in 1914, we see an incident from World War I. It’s meant to give us insight into the protagonist and his backstory. Not being familiar with the work of Christie, I’m not sure if this is something from any of her books or if it’s an invention from Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Michael Green (Logan and Murder on the Orient Express). It seems like it’s an invention, specifically for this film, as Branagh perhaps wanted to flesh out the protagonist a bit more and give himself more dimension, as Branagh is playing the protagonist himself. This invention though doesn’t really contribute much, except add some scale and perhaps makes this film feel more epic than it is.
Branagh stars as Hercule Poirot, the world-famous Belgian detective who was the protagonist in Murder on the Orient Express. His distinct mustache is his most unique physical feature. Otherwise, he’s a man of short stature but is very well-dressed, usually in very nice suits. He’s very intelligent and very proper. He’s also Belgium’s version of Sherlock Holmes. He’s amazing at deducing mysteries and specifically solving murders. He’s middle-aged but he’s a bachelor who’s more in love with his cases than he is with people. He’s vacationing alone in Egypt when he gets roped into a wedding party that turns into a murder case.
Tom Bateman, who reprises his role from Murder on the Orient Express, returns as Bouc, a friend to Poirot who assisted him on his case. We meet Bouc’s mother named Euphemia, played by Annette Bening. Euphemia is a talented painter who’s documenting scenes from Egypt like the Pyramids and such. Bouc accompanies her on this Egyptian trip and he randomly encounters Poirot. Bouc reveals that he and his mother are actually part of a wedding party where a wealthy heiress is marrying a working-class man from London, England. Bouc invites Poirot to join the wedding party.
Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman and Fast & Furious) co-stars as Linnet Ridgeway, the wealthy heiress in question. She allows Poirot to join her wedding party because she’s actually afraid of the guests at her party for one reason or another. She’s specifically afraid of one person who isn’t really a guest but is someone crashing the wedding, other than Poirot. The man she’s marrying is one whom she hired but was already engaged to her best friend, or her childhood friend. That friend is jealous and has been stalking Linnet for weeks now.
Out of nowhere, that friend, Jackie de Bellefort, played by Emma Mackey, shows up in Egypt to crash Linnet’s wedding and specifically her honeymoon. Linnet is worried that Jackie will do something violent or dangerous, so Linnet asks Poirot to help either talk her down or keep an eye on her, so that Jackie doesn’t hurt anyone. Poirot agrees, so he accompanies Linnet on her honeymoon, which includes a riverboat trip on the Nile river, eventually visiting amazing locations like the Great Temple of Abu Simbel. If nothing else, it gives Branagh an excuse to photograph and beautifully bring to the big screen these Egyptian monuments that don’t get much screen time, as compared to things like the Pyramids or the Great Sphinx of Giza.
Structurally, this film is very much akin to Murder on the Orient Express where Poirot has to solve a mystery while being trapped on board some large mode of transportation. In the 2017 film, it was a locomotive. Here, it’s a large ship. It helps to make the whole thing feel more tense and thrilling. Having Poirot trapped on the ship too is supposed to do the same. Yet, there’s a flaw in this plot that is such so that Poirot can do what he does, which is solve the case in one long monologue at the end, but it’s a flaw that underscores the silliness of this. That flaw is that the killer doesn’t kill Poirot. We’re led to believe that the killer has plotted the crime with such detail but starts killing others in order to cover-up the initial crime, which results in multiple people being killed on the ship. It’s odd that one of the victims wouldn’t be Poirot himself, even though the killer has two easy opportunities to do so.
Finally, Branagh adds some diversity to the casting here. He adds two Black characters, played by Sophie Okonedo and Letitia Wright. He adds an Indian character, played by Ali Fazal. Two characters even turn out to be LGBTQ, which is doubtful to have been in Christie’s book. It’s great that he contributes a more modern eye to this material, but it’s not enough to make it that exciting.
Rated PG-13 for violence, bloody images and sexual material.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 7 mins.