For Love and Revenge, or, My Problem with Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot (So Far)

The romance of the desert has the power to seduce… I ask you, have you ever loved so much, been so possessed by jealousy, that you might kill?
The crime is murder. The murderer is one of you.
I have investigated many crimes, but this has altered the shape of my soul.
I am detective Hercule Poirot, and I will deliver your killer.
How many great stories are tragedies.

Thus runs the voice-over in the trailer for the upcoming Hercule Poirot film Death on the Nile (set to open on 18 December but who really knows these days). The first time I saw the trailer and heard Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot utter these words, I laughed. And I laughed. And I laughed.

This movie is going to be atrocious, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

Death on the Nile is Branagh’s second Christie adaptation, and based on the trailer it is going to be much like the 2017 Murder on the Orient Express. Before launching into my complaints I want to make it clear that I also enjoyed Orient Express a lot. What it gets absolutely right is that it couldn’t possibly have relied on the whodunit, as the outcome of the mystery is difficult to forget. Many who went to see the film surely knew what was coming, and yet the film manages to entertain throughout. That is no mean feat, and added to the lovely crisp colours and gleaming glamour of it, it is an enjoyable experience.

However, I have two major complaints. The first is that Branagh completely misunderstands how revenge, or, more specifically, extralegal justice works. Revenge is, after all, about setting a balance to the world. Branagh’s Poirot is blind to this, even accusing the culprit/s of misbalancing the world. Worse yet, the movie builds balance up as a central theme and then completely undermines its role in revenge at the end. At the beginning, it is made clear that Poirot is not fastidious for the sake of it, he just likes balance, as illustrated by the scene where he steps into a pile of what appears to be camel poo and decides to solve the situation by stepping his other shoe into it as well. The point is driven in every time he straightens something up. This would work wonderfully, were he merciful and understanding of the crime at the end. He is not, and I walked out of the cinema fuming.

My second complaint is the absolutely unnecessary, out of character and pasted-on love story that has been created for Poirot. Before falling asleep on the train, he gazes at the portrait of a young woman and murmurs her name, Katherine. Call me a purist, but canonically the great Belgian detective has no such love interest, nor do I remember any occasion where he would have sighed of romantic love. If there is a woman Poirot admires, it is the Russian jewel thief Countess Vera Rossakoff, the Irene Adler to his Holmes. Why Branagh did not place her in the film instead of an imaginary Katherine, I do not know.

I do have a vague idea why this seemingly superfluous moment of sentiment was placed in Orient Express. I suspect it was placed there in order to prepare the viewers for the next film. Death on the Nile centres heavily on love, and – SPOILERS AHEAD – it may serve Branagh’s purpose to signal to the audience that Poirot understands the power of love. I’m interested to see how much leniency is shown at the end of Nile, though with the way the point of Orient Express was botched I’m not overly optimistic. Whether decision about the end of Orient Express is political is also a disturbing question, as it may say something about how society wants us to defer to authority without question. Is love going to be a more acceptable reason for murder than justice?

Having said all this, I’m definitely going to see Death on the Nile as soon as I possibly can. The trailer promises more of the hugely nostalgic settings and fashion I enjoyed in the first film, and the cast is again top tier, with Armie Hammer, Gal Gadot, Sophie Okonedo and Letitia Wright among others. I’m sure I’m going to enjoy it, and then gleefully complain about it afterwards.

“I have investigated many crimes, but this has altered the shape of my soul.” I ask you. What dross. I cannot wait.

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