Watching Sir Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded, CGI-assisted and deliriously old-fashioned movie version of Death on the Nile, this pundit was struck by a number of questions. Why did writer Michael Green feel the need to give Hercule Poirot’s moustache a tragic backstory? Why were so many comics, Russell Brand and French & Saunders among them, given such leaden roles? And who, in the name of all that is holy, was this film actually for?
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a whodunnit as much as the next person. The problem is the ones Agatha Christie wrote literally belong to another century, and a world where class, wealth and privilege rigidly codify every outlook, mindset and interaction. The people who inhabit her fictions aren’t characters, but marionettes at the service of her elaborate webs of intrigue. Her detectives aren’t people either, but fussy pedants with no other purpose but to push her narratives towards their climactic gotchas.
There was a time – we’re talking the ’70s here – when there was a vicarious pleasure to be had watching all-star ensembles glower and frown as an uppity sleuth dissected their dodgy pasts. Thrillers like Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express and John Guillermin’s 1978 take on Death on the Nile had genuine Hollywood icons at their disposal, not to mention real locations as their glamorous backdrops.
The recent versions of those novels have had to make do with contemporary celebrities, some of whom (Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer among them) come saddled with rather too much scandalous baggage for comfort. And in place of real locations, they’ve presented faux settings cooked up by computer, further distancing them from reality.
The end result is a phoney milieu divorced from consequence, one in which it matters not a jot who slays and who dies. We’re left with a genre preserved in aspic, bereft of the ingenuity, wit and sly subversion Rian Johnson’s Knives Out used to re-energise it. The Christie adaps we’ve been getting recently don’t honour the great lady’s legacy so much as cynically zombify it. Or is it just me?