Talking Movies

April 10, 2018

What becomes a Christie most?

Can the melancholic approach taken in Murder on the Orient Express work for a proposed Death on the Nile sequel?

I was quite surprised by the melancholic tone of Branagh’s first Poirot outing, but that, more than anything else, even his energetic performance as an exacting, physical Poirot, was what made the film work. And with a 350 million return on a 55 million budget it is inevitable that the sequel set up in its final scene will happen – Death on the Nile. Discussing this prospect with occasional co-writer Friedrich Bagel (which I still strongly suspect of being an assumed name) he opined that it would be better to go for a Christie mystery that has not been filmed, like The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sadly, I opined right back, two things stand in the way of that – people would riot in their cinemas at the finale of Ackroyd, and marketers would riot in their boardrooms at the prospect of actually having to do their job rather than utilise the name recognition of already beloved properties. Alors, Nile

One hopes that someone in Burbank isn’t thus scrolling through Peter Ustinov’s IMDb profile. Ticking off Evil Under the Sun and Appointment with Death as the final entries in the Branagh Poirot quadrilogy, sneakily noting Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man’s Folly, and Murder in Three Acts as potential TV specials to cross the street with to HBO if the Branagh Poirots hit a wall at the box office, or God help us looking about for young Branaghs for a potential prequel Mysterious Affair at Styles. We know that Michael Green will again be adapting Christie’s novel for Branagh to star and direct. Reviewing Murder on the Orient Express back in November I noted that Green redeemed himself from the double whammy disasters of Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 with his melancholic interpretation, which saw Branagh and composer Patrick Doyle render the murder almost as a mourning ritual. But that card can only be played once, leaving an obvious possibility that will annoy the purists.

That card is the trump that left the London Times spitting blood this Easter weekend when the BBC changed the identity of the killer in Ordeal by Innocence. It’s impossible to change the killer in Murder on the Orient Express, and one would think the same applies to Death on the Nile, but a severe rewrite (in the order of the tortures visited upon Stoker for Laurence Olivier’s Dracula) could yield anything. It is disconcerting when screenwriters assume they know better than the Queen of Crime who done it, but then there is a general tendency to sniff at Christie’s writing as being mere three-card-trick-plotting, overlooking some wonderful sly comedy as well as much darker effects of suspense, paranoia, and cynicism in The Hollow and And Then There Were None. No, if Green were to change the identity of the killer in Death on the Nile it wouldn’t be totally inadmissible, but it would be a hefty task of rewriting to keep Christie’s logic intact.

It is a matter of opinion that the melancholic card can only be played once. Green’s invented character arc for Poirot, where he admits shades of grey into a Manichean worldview is similar to the moral agony endured by Suchet’s Poirot on the same case. But Suchet’s crisis was explicitly Catholic while Branagh’s was, predictably for Hollywood, a crisis in the secular Markwellian ethics of consistency; allied to the writing of Poirot’s OCD as the scrupulosity of consistency in all things. (Although I vigorously object to the tendency to dub any and all devotion to precision as OCD, rather than, say, a devotion to precision.) I hold that the senseless murder of a kidnapped child naturally occasions a melancholic atmosphere in a way that a twisted love triangle climaxing in slaughter does not, but as Green threw out large chunks of plotting and minutiae to focus on a mood, it would not be outrageous to think he could do much the same thing for Nile.

Bagel took me to task for harping on Branagh as a physical Poirot, declaiming that Poirot was a policeman so he should be able to chase people, and that Christie herself admitted she’d blundered with his age, being retired in 1920 he would be 105 when solving crimes in 1960s Chelsea; a mistake akin to PG Wodehouse initially locating Blandings Castle damnably far from London for later plotting purposes. I retorted that Branagh’s physicality distinguishes his interpretation. Peter Ustinov naturally brought a raconteurish quality, and his bumbling was a play on how Christie made Poirot exaggerate his foreignness to trick villains into complacency. Suchet, lacking that flaneuring spirit, emphasised Poirot’s prim and proper sedentary use of the little grey cells; more true to the retired from active duty to pure consultation of Christie’s first forays with the detective. Branagh takes some of the fire from Suchet’s Poirot, indignant at evildoers expecting to get away scot-free, and makes his Belgian less retiree, more Fury at large.

To end where we began Herr Bagel wrung his hands that there is no decent actor who can play Hastings, the Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock, without being ‘annoying’. Hugh Fraser was perfect in the part for ITV, and, by indirect associations; he had previously played a villain in Edge of Darkness, he was tall where Suchet was small; I led myself to the only candidate (sic) for the part – Toby Jones. Who, by good fortune, was recently in Witness for the Prosecution for the BBC, and previously played opposite the great David Suchet on ITV’s Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh is Poirot, Jones is Hastings, the sun is high, the Nile water deceptively calm…

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