Thursday, February 17, 2022

Dead again


Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green (based on the novel by Agatha Christie)

Spoilers: moderate

Maybe that Best Picture nomination for Belfast cheered him up, but one's apt to feel bad for Ken Branagh, who put himself at the center of what looked like the only successful franchise for grown-ups we had going (which, as a bonus, feels like it's made by genuine craftspeople who care), only to have all the possibilities of it yanked away, by the coronavirus, by Disney's latest monopolistic play, and, not decisively but surely very annoyingly, by no fewer than three members of his new Hercule Poirot movie's all-star cast turning out to be either allegedly, or demonstrably, vile people.  Well, to address both the latter controversies, Disney's purchase of 20th Century Fox under the Trump administration's lax oversight, mainly just to execute a competitor while cannibalizing a few useful organs from the corpse, is bad; Russel Brand effectively taking on the role of a rebel organization's propaganda minister is also bad, and maybe worse, though it's hard to quantify such things.  But at least they've had a mutually-negating effect: Disney's indifference towards the Agatha Christie franchise they bought at least means that Branagh, or somebody operating under Branagh's name, was never asked to do any reshoots, which in turn means that Death On the Nile pushes back on the eye-rollingly dubious trend of rebuilding whole movies in post, at a significant cost in dollars, time, and artistic integrity, due to some perceived need to not just drum people out of their profession (frequently, that's fair enough), but also destroy the labor of innocent people in the process, just because a small fraction of the hundreds of people who worked on a film turn out to be nasty.

So now we finally have Death On the Nileand I've been waiting eagerly for it, because in my bones I guess I really am, like, seventy-five years old; or it's because I'm a Branagh fan, either onewhich has not exactly been dumped in February, as the Valentine's-adjacent release date it ultimately got makes a certain amount of sense, though this is also only the last in a comically long series of abandoned release dates that goes back all the way to before the pandemic in 2019.  It is, it turns out, a disappointment.  A modest disappointment, to be sure; very modest, even, since I still think it's pretty great.

What's not disappointing, in and of itself, is that Nile is a step down from Murder On the Orient Express; that's not its fault.  There was never going to be any viable pathway for Nile to be better, not when Branagh's first Christie mystery was so well-designed to test its detective's spirit along with his intellect, while prosecuting a whipsmart argument about crime and punishment and what a society even is as part of the bargain.  If there remain some efforts here to bolt some personal stakes onto our man Poirot, that's precisely what they are, efforts; by no means are they completely unsuccessful efforts, but they feel a little like unhammered nails, and even if you've never read Christie at all, they're certainly never difficult to identify as screenwriter Michael Green's add-ons.

Yet we begin with such an add-on, and it has the decency to be the best of all of them, offering a prologue that is partly an origin story to explain how an agrarian conscript from the Belgian sticks became Hercule Poirot (Branagh), though in a grander, more meta sense, it's just as much an origin story of the infamous mustache prosthetic that Branagh's obliged himself to wear in these films.  So: we're thrown back to the Great War, a silvery, semi-Expressionist black-and-white nightmarescape that somewhat piques my interest for a whole Branagh-directed Great War film* (the Big Parade-style sprawl of the hospital is especially striking).  Here, a young Poirot (still Branagh, under possibly the best de-aging algorithms I've ever seen, looking exactly like he did in 199X) proves that he's clever enough to defy the Hun but not clever enough to avoid having half his face blown off.  Nile has the remarkable nerve to push at its PG-13 bounds and let us gawk at that injury in a 65mm close-up while it's still oozing; but the more important part here is that we meet Katherine (Susannah Fielding), consoling her fiancĂ© (and wisely suggesting the 'stache), but who is, of course, conspicuously not around anymore for Poirot's "present-day" adventures in 1937.  This is the film's first flirtation with the theme of "love is a wellspring of pain," and somehow by a huge margin its most subtle.

This brings us to the Nile but not yet to death, which takes a moment (in point of fact, it brings us to London for another prefatory sequence, but for simplicity's sake, let's cut to Egypt).  Here Poirot marvels at the geometric elegance of the pyramids, which makes him happy, while also making the acquaintance of doomed heiress Linnet Ridgway-Doyle (Gal Gadot), who has recently stolen away her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefore's (Emma Mackey's) dashing fiancĂ© Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), and latterly suffered the consequence of Jacqueline stalking her across Europe and ultimately all the way here to North Africa.  Along for the trip are a number of relations and friends: Linnet's godmother and her nurse companion (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, respectively); her cousin and lawyer (Ali Fazal); her maid (Rose Leslie); her hired jazz-and-blues singer (Sophie Okonedo); the jazz-and-blues singer's niece/manager (that's an odd combo; Letitia Wright); and her doctor, who's also her ex (Brand, and obviously the perversity of Brand playing not only a learned medical professional, but one who underacts in almost every scene, is substantial).  Simon soon strikes upon the idea of their party absconding upon a riverboat trip down the Nile in order to escape Jacqueline's freakish, accusatory glaresthough Jacqueline manages to get aboard anyway.  In short order, Linnet is dead, but Jackie has an airtight alibi, for she'd already been constrained and sedated for shooting Simon in the leg.  But then, it's not like she's the only person aboard who had reason to kill Linnet.  Anybody could have done itit probably wasn't Poirot's old pal Bouc (Tom Bateman) or his mother (Annette Bening), who have their own drama going on thanks to Bouc's disfavored relationship with the singer's niece, and some of the rest have very minimal motive, but you never know till you know.  You know?

Leaving aside that this is a Poirot story that is much less "about Poirot" than Orient Express, which is not in any case a sin, it suffers from a noticeably worse script in almost every respect: not necessarily in terms of its mystery mechanics (better or worse, that's locked-in), but absolutely in terms of dialogue and pacing, which are the main vectors by which the sequel falls from the first film's "maybe this is not actually perfect, but it's close enough" to "sometimes this movie is actively bad."  It's the consensus critique that Nile takes too long to get started, and I won't argue with that too muchat two hours and seven, it's 13 minutes longer than its predecessor, and I'm certain it doesn't need to be.  But I don't hate that it decides to spend its first hour soaking up the vibe and atmosphere of fake Egypt and rolling along with some montages set to blues songs, rather than kicking off the body count right away.  (This is a surprisingly bloodthirsty film, incidentally, and by the end at least approaches what you'd call "a massacre.")

The problems are when it's not just vibing, most enervatingly in its repeated exposition dumps, the worst of which is a "meet the meat" spiel that slams into the film about a half-hour in and doesn't even seem to have been designed for you to retain any of the information it gives you, which turns out to be okaythough it shouldn't be okaybecause all of it gets repeated later, in some cases more than once.  This is at least addressing a need, so one can be agreeable about it.  Worse is the overenunciation of theme that attends Green's screenplay, which might as well blockquote that entire Nazareth song about love.  Love has scarred, wounded, and marked any heart across our whole cast, each of whom are always very happy to explain to you precisely how love has hurt them and what they might do to hurt it back.  It disappoints even out of proportion to how bad it is, because Orient Express had gone out of its way not to do this, somehow never even saying out loud the word "jury," and trusting that you were smart enough to get it.  Of course, many of you were not, which is my explanation for how Green, who also wrote Orient Express, got so much more condescending in the interval between films.

It doesn't help that the cast is, on average, worse: Branagh himself remains very impressive, but he's saddled with a less varied Poirot this time around, thanks to the sadsack register Nile imposes on him; the screenplay doesn't ask too awfully much of most of its secondary cast, though what it does ask they often screw up, with perhaps only Okonedo out of the "definitely didn't kill Linnet" half of the cast rising to so much as the level of the script (Wright is genuinely somewhat lousy and drags down Bateman with her; Saunders is irritating though it's possible this is exactly what was asked of her).  The only time Branagh requires something interesting of the non-director members of the cast is with Hammer and Mackey, obliged to spit-scream hateful invective into each other's faces (it's a bit of a spoiler to even point at why it's interesting, though by being interesting, and by being unique in its focus on anyone other than Branagh, it comes up to the line of giving the game away all by itself).

There are other littler problems besides: the CGI that occupies every exterior shot is almost undoubtedly better than the first film's if you compare "the ten best CG shots in Orient Express" to "the ten best CG shots in Nile," but besides Orient Express already representing a subterranean bar for VFX work, there's so much more of it here that it gives Nile every opportunity to look deliriously fucking wonky.  It's not fair that this has become one of the things that's defined Nile along with its cast's respective scandals, but when its CGI is bad, it is destabilizingly bad, with some deflatingly cartoonish digital animals and background compositing so distracting that it emphasizes all over again how little Disney ever gave a shit about this movie, when they had over two years to fix it and apparently couldn't be nudged to spend a dime to do so.  (How this work could possibly co-exist in the same film as the de-aging effects on Branagh in the prologue is flummoxing.)  In any case, it reaches an apex with one of the braindead dumbest directorial flourishes I've ever seen, when the denouement offers us a match-dissolve from a CGI Nile to a CGI Thames.  (And this does not contend with Branagh's film-long motif of using insert shots of CGI animal predation of varying degrees of rendering quality as scene transitions, which is frankly a little thematically confused.)  Making matters worse, it's a denouement that shouldn't even be here, when the film already had ended with perfect emotional ambiguity, with the way Branagh puts that wistful ellipsis on the end of his final line, "perhaps...", leaving it up to you to decide for yourself whether Poirot ever gets laid again or not.  I mean, I would prefer "not," but that's because I prefer my Poirot to neither be human, nor have human attachments.

And for all that, I love it.  The acting that actually matters is solid-to-good.  I've shit on the dialogue, but it can be witty as hell ("the lucky ones die in childbirth!").  The mystery is a good one even if I personally managed to solve it from first principles thirty minutes before the victim had even died; it's a different kind of satisfaction from being surprised, but there's surely pleasure in being right and watching it all fall into place.  (The "how" eluded me till the reveal, and, in truth, that's by far the more important factor here.)

And though he's not above a misstep (I've certainly covered them), I will always prefer a filmmaker like Branagh, who makes real choices, even if he doesn't always know what those choices are for, to filmmakers who don't make choices at all.  Better yet, sometimes those choices here are exemplary: the climactic tableau is the best single shot I've seen in a movie in maybe years, and it's not even really that showy, just an extraordinarily precise combination of blocking, acting, and sound mixing (a major enhancing factor throughout the film, in fact), along with a tiny little bit of framerate manipulation.  Branagh is, at the very least, having a grand old time figuring out how to enliven what becomes a single-location film.  He has the luck to have one really superb location, and on this count, Branagh may actually get more out of Nile's riverboat than he did Orient Express's train (the big piece of visual continuitybesides both being shot by Haris Zambarloukos on sumptuous large-format film, of course; and besides the mustacheis the repeated use of lozenges of glass to once again refract our duplicitous suspects across the frame).  Jim Davis's production design, distinct from the CGI, is outstanding stuff, turning that $90 million budget into something you can see and practically feel, thanks to the full-size boat he just up and built, and plopped down into the middle of a Fox watertank so Branagh could do a bunch of dolly-shots all over it.  It's a beautiful set (Paco Delgado's costuming likewise), full of 30s ritz and elegance.  So is Branagh's direction: even with all of his customary kineticism, there's a stateliness and glamor here that's beyond any reproach, and that a movie like this can even exist in 2022 is miraculous.

Score: 8/10

*Oh right, The Magic Flute.  But you know what I mean.

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