Death on the Nile – Culture – Al-Ahram Weekly

The last cinematic release of British writer Agatha Christie’s novel Death on the Nile dates back to 1978, when British actor Peter Ustinov, memorable as Roman Emperor Nero in the 1950s film Quo Vadis, directed the cast with a fine performance as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. .

British director John Guillermin shot a well-done film version, with a standout performance by romantic lead Simon MacCorkindale as Simon Doyle and cameos from some of the best-known English or American actors and actresses of the time, many of them convinced some. last sparks of long careers. Undemanding roles in material that relies heavily on acting saw Bette Davis appear as American millionaire Marie Van Schuyler and David Niven play British military Colonel Race.

There were also roles for emerging talents of the time, such as American actress Mia Farrow as aggrieved fiancée Jacqueline de Bellefort and a young Maggie Smith, still going strong today in older roles. , as female companion Miss Bowers.

Add to that the Nino Rota-inspired score and filming in Upper Egypt, and all the ingredients were in place for what became for many a favorite film. With director Sidney Lumet’s inspired film version of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express only four years earlier, this time with British actor Albert Finney as Poirot and an equally remarkable cast, and it must have seemed to many than Christie’s own well-attested doubts as to how misplaced his material transferred to film was.

However, such doubts may well return with the opening this month of British actor and director Kenneth Branagh’s new film version of Death on the Nile in the United States and in countries around the world, including the United Kingdom. ‘Egypt. Branagh tried his hand at a new film version of Murder on the Orient Express in 2017, and although it was panned by critics, it seems the experience nonetheless encouraged him to attempt Death on the Nile again. .

All of the issues with the previous film come back in spades, including the painfully crisp visual quality that comes with the use of digital technology and the often clumsily applied CGI shots. Christie’s novels, retrograde even when they were written due to their improbable castings of rentier characters, come out best in a kind of heritage blurring as generations of directors have generally understood.

While Branagh also seems to understand this aspect of Christie’s appeal judging by the painstaking 1930s style of his film, the period character of the material pots contrasts with the high-definition digital technology he uses. The general impression is not so much that of a film taking place in Egypt as that of presenting a digital simulacrum thanks to the massive use of special effects.

The sense of space and depth associated with actual locations – so memorably captured in the 1978 film – is largely lost in favor of visual effects that wouldn’t look out of place in high-end computer games. The whole thing seems oddly tied to the studio, with scenes shot on land, such as visits to ancient Egyptian monuments, looking like they were filmed against polystyrene and plaster models, contrasting oddly with the different visual quality. digital effects. .

For reasons better known to the film’s production team – perhaps expense, perhaps Covid-19 restrictions, or perhaps some kind of preference for CGI – the decision was made not to the film set in Egypt, which means the Pyramids, the Abu Simbel Temples, and the Nile itself are all rendered either technologically or through studio mockups. This is all baffling because the demographic the film is presumably aimed at probably won’t be impressed with the kind of computer-generated visual effects mostly associated with sci-fi and action movies.

Perhaps Branagh is aiming to appeal to younger audiences more sensitive to digital sharpness and visual bling, but one wonders how enamored they will be with Christie’s plot, even, as in this case, when ‘She’s been digitally inflated but otherwise slimmed down. The film makes various inexplicable departures from the original novel, with significant characters omitted and others introduced along with additional material that adds nothing to the character psychology or plot development.

Branagh may have cooked up something neither fish nor fowl in his new film version, underscored by an iron-eared script that oscillates between fidelity to the upper-class English discourse of the time, one of Christie’s specialties, and things the characters in a Christie novel could never say. All in all, it served up a film that is likely to disappoint Christie fans and especially Death on the Nile fans.

AGATHA IN EGYPT: The fact that Branagh chose not to make his film in Egypt is a particular disappointment since Christie herself was an occasional and always grateful visitor to the country.

Her first visit was before World War I when as the daughter of a wealthy upper-middle-class family, she spent three months attending balls and polo matches from a base at Gezirah Palace. Hotel du Caire, now the Cairo Marriott. However, it was his second visit, in 1933, that will mark posterity. Christie, accompanied by her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, took a Nile river cruise, and it was memories of this that informed her 1936 novel Death on the Nile.

The novel is vintage Christie in its exploration of the murderous passions that can arise in a claustrophobic set of circumstances, in this case among the passengers of a riverboat as it navigates the river. Fortunately, Poirot, also a passenger, is on hand to unravel a tangle of deliberately crafted false clues in order to finally unmask the murderers.

“You were too smart for us, Monsieur Poirot,” said one of them. Money and marriage, as so often in Christie’s plots, turn out to have been at the bottom of things, these giving rise to a convoluted series of events deliberately designed to mystify. As one of the murderers confessed to Poirot, “it seemed to me that the basis of the idea had to be a kind of two-handed alibi. You know – if [we] could somehow testify against each other – but in fact, if that evidence exonerates us of everything.

Christie has only written one novel set in modern-day Egypt, and while the focus is on its European and American characters, she recounts how the country might have looked to well-heeled tourists back then. . From their base in Aswan, for example, its characters can plan a journey up the Nile to the temples of Abu Simbel, impossible today due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s and the displacement of temples to higher grounds.

(Guillermin circumvented this difficulty by setting his film in Luxor and re-imagining the moment a boulder falls dangerously close to Simon and Linnet Doyle as they inspect the details of the temples – was it an accident or was it pushed? – as taking place in the Temple of Karnak instead. Branagh, who recreated the Temple of Abu Simbel in the studio, restores the scene to its original location.)

Christie’s other novel set in Egypt, Death Comes as the End, is unusually set in the ancient period, but it was by no means her only foray into the wider region. Following an unsuccessful first marriage to Archie Christie, whose surname she kept after divorce and subsequent remarriage, she became interested in ancient Middle Eastern civilizations through her second husband, helping for periods to archaeological excavations in Syria and Iraq.

Some of this experience informed other books about Middle Eastern settings, including Murder on the Orient Express, also first published in the 1930s. The setting in this novel is on a train rather than a a cruise ship, with Poirot starting his journey in Aleppo in northern Syria, traveling to Istanbul, then from Istanbul to Europe. A murder takes place on the train while it’s stuck in a snowstorm in the Balkans, with the murderers once again devising a convoluted series of false clues meant to mislead the detective.

Then there’s Murder in Mesopotamia, also from the 1930s, in which the wife of an archaeologist working on an archaeological dig in Iraq is murdered, and Rendezvous with Death, set in Palestine and Jordan and from the end of the same decade, in which a woman is mysteriously found dead at the archaeological site of Petra. There is They Came to Baghdad, unusual for Christie a spy novel rather than a detective novel, in which a young woman discovers a dying British secret agent in her hotel room as a summit meeting is to be held in Baghdad.

Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine no longer looked much like the countries Christie had first visited or experienced in the 1930s after World War II, with rapid social change and political revolution sweeping the region during a tumultuous post-war decade. She therefore returned to the Middle East primarily in her memoirs, where she described the experiences she had previously shared with Mallowan in her work in the region.

Come Tell Me How You Live, written while Christie was in London during World War II, looks back on his life in Syria in the 1930s when Mallowan was working on archaeological digs at Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak. A full autobiography later published posthumously in 1977 gives more details of Christie’s life in the region.

After his appointment as professor of archeology in London, he and Christie travel to Iraq where he excavates the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud in northern Iraq, first excavated by British archaeologist Henry Layard in the middle of the 19th century. According to British writer Janet Morgan, Christie’s authorized biographer in the decade that followed, there was “the creation of at least an annual mystery novel, sometimes accompanied by a novel, a play, ‘a collection of short stories and an annual expedition to Iraq’. .”

Bestselling novels such as Murder Is Foretold, They Do It With Mirrors and A Pocket Full of Rye were written this way, as was Death on the Nile. As Morgan says in her biography, Christie wrote her books in her spare time among her other activities in the Middle East. “Writing was not the most important aspect of his life; she was writing her books, as she always had, among other activities,” she says.

Given Christie’s long involvement with Egypt and the wider region, it seems a shame that it hasn’t yet been more satisfactorily reflected in the film adaptations of her Middle Eastern novels. While Branagh chose not to follow Christie to Egypt for his version of Death on the Nile, that shouldn’t constrain future directors from wanting to provide more authentic images of the magnificent Egyptian landscapes.


*A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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