Release Date(s)2022 (April 5, 2022)
Studio(s)20th Century Studios/Disney
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C-
Kenneth Branagh’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation isn’t going to please everyone, but frankly, it couldn’t. That’s true of adaptations in general, but where Christie is concerned, everyone seems to have their own stubbornly held preferences. There’s no question that Death on the Nile takes great liberties with the novel, and Branagh’s interpretation of Hercule Poirot is rather idiosyncratic (to put it mildly), but a lack of faithfulness to source material isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s a necessary evil when translating from one medium into another. In the case of Christie, however, her books have been adapted enough times that at this point, there’s no reason to try again, unless you can put a different spin on the material.
The screenplay for Death on the Nile by Michael Green, who also wrote Murder on the Orient Express for Branagh, performs some major surgery on the characters, starting with a pre-credit flashback that provides an explanation for Poirot’s notorious mustache. (The sequence also provides a somewhat trite rationale for Poirot’s rigid bachelor lifestyle, which simply wasn’t necessary.) Other characters are eliminated, replaced, combined, or completely redesigned. For instance, Tim Allerton has been replaced by Tom Bateman’s version of Bouc from Murder on the Orient Express, which is actually a nice way to link the two films. Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Bening) is newly invented for the film, but she does serve a purpose here.
Probably the single biggest character adjustment is that Salome Otterbourne has been changed from a drunken romance novelist into an African-American jazz/blues singer who is clearly inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (If the comparison wasn’t obvious enough already, she’s performing Tharpe songs in the film, and it’s actually Tharpe’s voice on the soundtrack, too.) Sophie Okonedo brings real gravitas to the role, which gives Salome depth that was lacking in some other versions of the tale.
Green and Branagh also made a few plot adjustments, some minor, some not. One of the most noteworthy alterations is that they’ve changed at least one death that takes place on the Nile, which is a good choice since it keeps seasoned viewers on their toes. If you think that you know who will live or die based on the fact that you’ve read the book, think again. It’s a smart way to keep familiar material fresh.
The rest of the cast is fine, though perhaps not as memorable as in other adaptations. Yet the all-star casts in those versions can be a distraction as well, so having a few actors who are a bit more off the beaten path isn’t necessarily a weakness. It’s still Branagh’s film through and through, as his rendition of Poirot appropriately dominates the proceedings—though Okonedo manages to put him in his place more than once. Reuniting Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders was definitely a nice touch, with a twist that actually works quite well as played by the duo. And contrary to popular opinion, Gal Godot is perfectly acceptable as Linnet Ridgeway (not sure why some people have issues with her).
Branagh and his cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos once again chose to shoot in 65 mm and, as laudable as that may be, the benefits are a bit less clear this time, as this film is even more awash in CGI. (Like Murder on the Orient Express, it was finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate, then scanned back out to film for 70 mm exhibitions.) That was probably inevitable, given the setting and the complications of shooting on location during a global pandemic, but the greater sense of reality afforded by large format film is lost here. Still, Death on the Nile is something of a fairy tale, albeit one with deadly consequences, so the slightly dreamy, fantastical look isn’t entirely inappropriate. Branagh wasn’t aiming for realism anyway; he wanted to create an impressionistic view of Egypt instead.
Haris Zambarloukos shot Death on the Nile on 65 mm film using two Panavision Panaflex System 65 Studio cameras, with Panavision Sphero 65 and System 65 lenses. Background plates for the trip down the Nile were captured digitally at 8K resolution using an array of RED cameras. The 65 mm negatives were scanned digitally at 8K resolution, and everything was completed as a 4K Digital Intermediate, with Zambarloukos supervising a standard HDR grade as well as one for Dolby Vision. (Typical for Disney UHD releases, only HDR10 has been included on the disc.) Despite the 65 mm origination, it appears to have been finished at 2.39:1, which is reproduced here, rather than 2.20:1. There’s no getting around the fact that all of the CGI and compositing work in Death on the Nile stands out, especially when viewed in 4K on a large screen. Setting that aside, this is an outstanding presentation of the film. Everything is pinpoint sharp and finely detailed, with grain that’s completely invisible at normal viewing distances—Zambarloukos shot on a variety of Kodak stocks including fine-grained 250D and 200T. Those who are accustomed to a gauzy soft-focus appearance in period films may find the clarity here a bit disconcerting at first, but it’s a distinctive look. The HDR grade expands the contrast range and offers brighter highlights, though not always the deepest blacks. The prologue is presented in black and white, and the gray scale doesn’t quite look natural because it was shot in color and graded in post (a deliberate choice on the part of Zambarloukos). When things do spring into full color a few minutes later, it’s a gorgeously rich and well-saturated look.
Primary audio is in English Dolby Atmos. Befitting the source material, it’s an active yet restrained mix. The opening scene on the battlefield offers the most obvious demonstration of the capabilities of the format, with all channels engaged, and deep bass from the explosions. The mix settles down a bit after that, which is appropriate, though there’s usually light ambience surrounding the viewer, and off-screen effects like voices or other minor sounds. The overheads don’t get much of a workout after the opening scene, though they’re used sparingly during moments like the rockfall at Abu Simbel. The score from Branagh’s house composer Patrick Doyle is sweeping and expansive. Additional audio options include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio; French, Spanish, and Italian 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus; and French (Canada) 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English SDH, French (Canada), Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
The Disney/20th Century Studios 4K Ultra HD release for Death on the Nile is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray copy in 1080p, a Digital code on a paper insert, and a slipcover. There are no extras on the UHD. The following extras are included on the Blu-ray only, all in HD:
- Death on the Nile: Novel to Film (15:30)
- Agatha Christie: Travel Can Be Murder (5:53)
- Design on the Nile (11:01)
- Branagh / Poirot (5:35)
- Deleted Scenes: The Market (2:01)
- Deleted Scenes: Poirot’s Cabin (:22)
- Deleted Scenes: Rosalie and Bouc Outside Temple (1:03)
- Deleted Scenes: Windlesham Jogging (2:15)
- Deleted Scenes: Poirot Discusses Case (:43)
- Deleted Scenes: Poirot and Bouc Approach Jackie (2:02)
- Deleted Scenes: Confronting Bouc and the Otterbournes (1:21)
- Deleted Scenes: Poirot Orders Books (1:04)
- Trailer (2:08)
It’s a fairly standard collection of light EPK-style fluff. Novel to Film examines the adaptation process, with the most interesting part being thoughts by Christie’s grandson Matthew Prichard and great-grandson James Prichard. Both seem happy with the film as a whole, with Matthew giving it a 10 out of 10 for capturing the spirit of Christie, and James saying that he enjoys other people’s interpretations. Travel Can Be Murder covers how Christie’s own travels influenced her writing. Design on the Nile takes a look at the production design, sets, costuming, and even Poirot’s mustache. The idea was to create an impression of Egypt, rather than trying to be completely accurate. Branagh / Poirot actually has nothing to do with Poirot, but instead contains thoughts on working with Branagh from various members of the cast and crew. The Deleted Scenes appear to have all been trimmed relatively early in post-production, as they feature rough comps for background elements, or none at all. It’s easy to see why they were cut, with only The Market having a nice extra moment of sparks between Salome and Poirot.
In the end, Death on the Nile is a successful re-envisioning of the Agatha Christie book, driven by a quirky lead performance from Branagh. If you’re a purist who insists on slavish deference to source material, then look elsewhere. But if you’re willing to acknowledge that books are books, films are films, and something always has to give between the two, then Death on the Nile is a satisfying whodunit. It’s a grand old time at the movies.
- Stephen Bjork