A&E // 2004 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // January 3rd, 2005
"It's so dreadfully easy killing people, Monsieur Poirot."
The wonderful David Suchet returns as Hercule Poirot in this made-for-television mystery. Like so many of Agatha Christie's enduringly popular works, Death on the Nile combines the intellectual and psychological appeal of the murder mystery with the glamour and decadence of life between the world wars. That combination, together with the presence of Suchet -- probably the best screen incarnation of Hercule Poirot ever -- makes this an enjoyable diversion for fans of mysteries and period dramas. However, just as Poirot's mighty intellect dwarfs those around him, Suchet's skilled performance accentuates the awkwardness of many of his co-stars.
Linnett Ridgeway (Emily Blunt) has it all: youth, beauty, wealth -- and, pretty soon, her best friend's fiancé. Now Linnett Doyle, she and her handsome new husband Simon (JJ Feild, K-19: The Widowmaker) set off on the honeymoon that Simon had planned to take with the woman he jilted, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Malin, The Forsyte Saga: To Let). But Jacqueline won't be cast aside that easily: Hurt and angry, she follows the newlyweds everywhere they go, a visible reminder of the wrong they have done her.
When a chance meeting acquaints Linnett with the renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Suchet), she demands that he come to her aid and put an end to Jacqueline's stalking. Touched and saddened by Jacqueline's obsession, Poirot brushes Linnett off. But despite his unwillingness to get involved, he soon ends up on the same Nile cruiser with the lovers' triangle. They are joined by a varied group of fellow travelers, from the aging sex novelist Salome Otterbourne (Frances de la Tour) and her jaded daughter, Rosalie (Zoe Telford), to a handsome but obnoxious communist (Alastair Mackenzie), a devoted mother and son, a German doctor, and Linnett's financial agent (David Soul). Poirot is also reunited with an old friend, Colonel Race (James Fox, The Remains of the Day), whose authority comes in handy when Linnett is found murdered in her bed.
All the signs -- including a bloody message left by the dying Linnett herself -- seem to point to Jacqueline. But she has the best of alibis, having been busy wounding Simon with her pistol at the crucial time, in the presence of appalled witnesses. Fortunately for the rest of the passengers, Poirot takes on the investigation and sets out to discover who else wanted the lovely Linnett dead -- and why.
It may sound a bit perverse to call a tale of murder escapism, but this film certainly takes us out of our humdrum reality into a world of beauty and luxury. This gorgeously mounted television movie steeps us in the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the upper crust in the 1930s, from mansions to hotels to cruise ships, and also provides breathtaking vistas of Egypt and the Nile, even including scenes shot on location in temples and ruins. The production and costume design lovingly recreate the elegance of the 1930s, and the handsome cinematography -- marked by fluid camera work and artistic compositions -- enhances the richness of the experience. Visually, this is a sumptuous film; the only sour notes are Emily Blunt's god-awful hairstyles and the troweled-on makeup of some of the women characters. Death on the Nile was filmed in 1.33:1, so we don't get a widescreen experience, but the colors are bold and true, and the picture is crisp and free of defect, further enhancing the beauty of the film.
Complementing the visual delights is a fine musical accompaniment that combines '30s-era songs with a Middle Eastern–flavored score that contributes to the sense of exoticism. The music comes across particularly well in the Dolby stereo mix, which presents a remarkably immersive experience, rendering everything from the sound of falling rain to the percussion in the musical score distinctly and with lifelike clarity.
The exquisite production values enhance what is already a vivid and engaging story. Like the best of Christie's work, the story is ingeniously plotted, with lots of colorful and intriguing characters (of whom the most enjoyable may be the one-track-minded Salome Otterbourne, who keeps making passes at Poirot and looks like nothing so much as Carol Burnett's interpretation of Norma Desmond). There is lots of humor to leaven the suspense, as Christie fans will expect, particularly in scenes where Poirot gets to trump suspects who have treated him dismissively. The solution to the mystery was a genuine surprise without being a cheat, and the final scene contains a further dramatic twist. The action also moves along swiftly, to the credit of director Andy Wilson; this film doesn't have the stagy, talky quality of many other film treatments of Christie mysteries. I was also delighted, as always, with Suchet's performance as Poirot; after so many years of playing this role, Suchet seems to be able to don the character as easily as if it were one of the natty pastel suits favored by the vain little detective. There's never any hint of artifice or calculation about his performance.
Although none of the other cast members quite match Suchet's unforced, natural quality, there are other capable performances. JJ Feild brings credibility to a role that's more layered than it at first seems, and Barbara Flynn is charming as Mrs. Allerton. As the castoff Jacqueline, Emma Malin has a vulnerable, haunted look that draws us to her -- although it doesn't suggest the hot-blooded Latin nature that other characters ascribe to her. Even though she isn't always up to the demands of her role, she is easily the standout among the younger cast members. Her screen presence reminded me of Helena Bonham-Carter, and I suspect that, out of all the young actors here, hers will be the career to watch.
Many of the other performances, however, are unsuccessful. Emily Blunt, for example, is not the great beauty that all the characters say Linnett is, and while she cannot be blamed for her looks, neither does she possess the screen presence or charisma that would create the illusion of beauty. Her bearing is stiff, her American accent is inconsistent, and she creates a character so one-dimensional that it's not possible to care when she's murdered. Even worse is Zoe Telford as Rosalie, the long-suffering daughter of Salome Otterbourne. Rosalie ought to be a very likable character, with her self-protective sarcasm that doesn't entirely hide her vulnerability and courage. However, Telford is so brittle and affected that Rosalie plummets in our esteem. Even her voice sounds strained, as if the actress is forcing it into a lower register than is comfortable. Daisy Donovan, as a socially inept American, overacts annoyingly. Daniel Lapaine as Tim Allerton likewise hams it up a bit, but at least his character is supposed to be slightly over the top. I felt real pity for Suchet, deploying his talent against such inexpert cast mates. Even the usually reliable James Fox sometimes succumbs to the general tendency to overact.
The only other irritant in the film is the abrupt emergence of a couple of romantic threads -- too flimsy to be accorded the title of subplots -- that seem to spring to life out of nowhere. Two characters simply come down with romantic inclinations (not toward each other) as they would the flu. Both instances are dealt with so expeditiously that their inclusion at all seems unnecessary -- although I must admit that the resolution of one of these threads was refreshing and unexpected. When a moment of camaraderie seems to open the door to romance, one character leans in and kisses the other. Ah, romance! Then the kissee draws back, gives the kisser a blank look, and says flatly: "You're barking up the wrong tree." It's one of the funniest moments in the film: For once the conventional response isn't forthcoming.
Death on the Nile should be a satisfying film for mystery lovers and fans of Agatha Christie. Its visual splendor makes it a feast for the eyes, even if some of the performances may leave one cold. The feeble extras -- very brief text biographies of Christie and Suchet, and a listing of Christie's Poirot stories -- won't elevate this disc's status to must-buy, but the high-quality audiovisual transfer is a solid plus. For devotees of Suchet, this will probably be a no-brainer; for others, I suggest a rental rather than a blind purchase.
Monsieur Poirot has once again saved the day. Emily Blunt's hair stylist is detained for mandatory rehabilitation, and the casting director is placed on probation, but the rest of the defendants are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Biographies of Agatha Christie and David Suchet
* Index of Hercule Poirot Stories