Kenneth Branagh: My Poirot Must Ache
Giving the famous Belgian detective a traumatic backstory takes 'Death on the Nile' from silly to truly bad
Kenneth Branagh, the leading producer of movies starring Kenneth Branagh, wants to make a go of playing Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. There’s no law against this and no one can stop him and so, with impunity, he’s already released his second movie: Death on the Nile, the sequel to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. On paper, it’s not the worst idea: Branagh is an accomplished actor, and if he’s a clearly egotistical figure, well, so is Poirot. It turns out, however, that not all vanities are the same. Christie’s Poirot is fussy and a little ridiculous — which fits her general perspective on humanity. Branagh’s Poirot is self-serious and traumatized; more like the kind of detective we’re accustomed to seeing in TV shows like Broadchurch. He’s got damage.
The plot of Death on the Nile is, like most Christie plots, both simple and complicated: golden girl heiress Linnet Ridgeway, meets, and then seduces, her best friend Jacqueline’s fiancé Simon. Jacqueline, unwilling to forget or forgive, stalks the couple wherever they go, including to their honeymoon in Egypt. Poirot, who happens to be vacationing in Egypt, runs into the trio, each of whom appeals to him separately to weigh in on the situation. Then somebody shoots Linnet in the head. She’s the first corpse of the story, but she isn’t the last.
For most of its runtime, Death on the Nile is fine — you could watch it on an airplane, or drunk, or whatever, without suffering too much. I watched it sitting next to three teenage boys who liked it well enough. As in Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh diversifies the cast (good) but partly so he can make various characters victims of racism (questionable). He remixes and streamlines the other parts of the story, sticking close to the central love triangle, which makes the movie less of a puzzle but is, for a movie, inevitable to some degree. Clips of Gal Gadot’s weirdly stiff performance have already made the rounds on Twitter, but as Simon and Linnet, Armie Hammer and Gadot both play characters whose primary trait is their physical beauty. Whatever you think of them, they are beautiful people; they do all right. That said, a scene where Gadot, pretending to be Cleopatra, flirts with Hammer by grinding against him and saying “O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!” and then reaches for his belt as she says “where’s my serpent of old Nile” is probably going to haunt my dreams.
No, the movie tips into the truly bad — the transcendently bad, even — when it comes to every decision Branagh makes playing Poirot. Death on the Nile opens with a black-and-white prologue set in World War I where a young (mustache-less) Poirot cleverly figures out how to retake a bridge from the Germans with zero casualties. But as fate would have it, his beloved mustachioed captain steps on a land mine anyway and dies. Some of the shrapnel cuts up Poirot’s face a little, which is treated in the movie a little like he’s just become The Phantom of the Opera. His beloved Katherine visits him in the hospital some time after this and he shows her his bloody face. She suggests he grow a mustache. Katherine then gets blown up too. It’s a hazard of knowing our friend Hercule. Branagh also invents a best friend for Poirot so that he can then end the friendship, traumatizing Poirot yet again, though the friend (at least) doesn’t step on a bomb.
All of this is a Branagh invention and Poirot’s relationship to his trauma (as embodied by his mustache) forms the bookends of the movie. Throughout the movie he is reproached for being cold, afraid, unwilling to love again; he’s presented a possible flirtation in the form of a blues singer (Salome Otterbourne, played Sophie Okonedo) but shuts himself off to it. At the end, he sits alone in a nightclub, listening to Salome, having shaved off the mustache. He looks wistful. Poirot is coming out of his cage and he’s doing just fine. The next movie, if there is one, will have a Poirot who fucks, I guess, unless he gets traumatized again in between because another person explodes.
Why? I don’t know. I’m not sure even Kenneth Branagh knows. Throughout both of his Poirot movies, I have found myself baffled as to the character he actually wants to be playing. A softer James Bond? A more romantic Sherlock Holmes? Some original Branagh creation he can’t get made into a movie? In one promotional interview for Murder on the Orient Express he comments that he thinks people dismiss Agatha Christie as “a second-rater” but that “she is far more than that.” That he goes into these movies thinking he’s going to save Agatha Christie’s reputation is both telling and ridiculous. And not ridiculous in the fun, mincing Poirot way.
Think of some iconic detectives. TV or books, either is fine: Poirot, Miss Marple, Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Columbo, and so on. Are they interesting? Yes, for sure. But how, exactly? What makes them interesting?
In a recent essay for the New Yorker, critic Parul Seghal wrote about what she called the “trauma plot,” in which “characters are now created in order to be dispatched into the past, to truffle for trauma.” One of Seghal’s examples of the dominance of “trauma” in fiction is TV adaptations that create traumatic backgrounds for characters that previously didn’t have one — much like Branagh does for Poirot, loading him up with scars of warfare. What makes a fictional character a character? For these stories, it’s their trauma, and knowing somebody’s trauma provides the key for unlocking whatever’s going on with them. It’s mechanical in this way.
But Christie’s characters are a combination of stubborn traits, relationships, and secrets, and both simpler than the trauma narrative requires and more complicated. Much excavation of the past is required to solve the mystery, but the past explains what people did, not who they are. There’s no one thing that explains them, and this makes them capable of choices that even they might not realize they’re capable of, though an outside observer might. When, in the book, Linnet appeals to Poirot for help driving her embittered friend away, he suggests she feels guilt over her theft of Simon. Linnet cannot explain why she seduced her best friend’s fiancé and cannot even get close enough to the reason to admit she feels a qualm over it.
But Poirot knows; she did it to prove that she could, that nothing was forbidden to her. Part of Linnet’s disquiet is what her actions revealed to her about herself. But Gal Gadot’s Linnet just shrugs it off. There is nothing meaningful about her choices, since she is, in the story, marked out by her wealth and beauty as untraumatized.
I don’t think it’s an accident that most of the detectives I’ve mentioned don’t work in the trauma plot mode. (Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey does in fact have shellshock, though it isn’t related to his detective work.) They are interesting because they’re interested; we don’t need to meet Columbo’s wife, or learn about Jessica Fletcher’s abusive childhood, or get a complete neurological profile of Sherlock Holmes. In the opening chapter of Death on the Nile, Poirot looks around the restaurant he’s in and notices the different patrons. Among them are people who will turn out to matter later, but it’s clear Poirot enjoys the people watching much like he enjoys the excellent food he is about to eat. It’s a pleasure. Investigating the murders themselves are not exactly a pleasure — it’s not that Poirot enjoys seeing people die. But he’s drawn to the work.
Part of the problem with creating a past for characters to explain their choices is that it assumes that everybody responds to what happens to them in the same way. People are always running away from something, and not toward. You couldn’t grow a mustache because you were vain and you liked it, but because you wanted to hide behind it; couldn’t live a satisfying life without romance unless you were in denial; and couldn’t become a detective unless you had intimacy issues. What makes people different in a story like this is something wrong with them: it shows that they’re repressed and insufficiently healed. They can’t just be like that, for you to take or leave.
But for Christie — and for me — sometimes people are just like that. We love Poirot because he is vain and because he is moral and because he is intelligent, but certainly all of these qualities are going to be exasperating at one time or another — the same way you love your friend who is always late but sometimes want to strangle them. Why are late people late? No doubt for somebody it has to do with a traumatic encounter with punctuality. But most of us are making choices situated in between the things about ourselves and others we have to live with and the things we have the ability to change. Part of what the three participants in the love triangle in Death on the Nile can’t admit is that they made choices and now they have to live with them: Linnet and Simon to betray, Jacqueline to pursue them.
Motive is one of the concerns of murder mysteries, but it tends to run plentiful on the ground. Most people have a reason to kill somebody else, they just don’t. Early in Death on the Nile, Poirot tells a curious fellow passenger different motives for murder. There’s vanity and money, “revenge — and love, and fear, and pure hate, and beneficence.” Nobody has a really original reason to kill, though they might, in a Christie novel, have original means. Like people, motives are both simple and complicated, hard to discern, easy to sum up. Why people do the things they do can be a total mystery to them and obvious to everybody else. A real mystery explains everything that can be explained and understands that some things can’t. This is what made Agatha Christie a first-rater; Branagh, a second.
B.D. McClay is an essayist and critic.