Kenneth Branagh’s second Agathie Christie adaptation with the famous French detective, Hercule Poirot (of course, played by Branagh himself) brings another well-known story of murder and intrigue in an opulent, faraway setting to the big screen with an undeniably star-studded cast.
The two standout performances must go to Branagh as the obsessive and brilliant protagonist, and the rising star of Netflix’s Sex Education, Emma Mackey, who acts circles around her infinitely more experienced co-stars as the film’s jilted lover, Jackie. Unfortunately, these wonderful performances are quickly overshadowed by the borderline criminal casting of Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer as the central couple. The pair are almost unwatchable and are arguably the film’s biggest weakness. (I implore any casting directors thinking of giving Gadot another overpaid job to remember that Ana de Armas, Zendaya, or literally anyone else exists). Aside from this, the ensemble cast is just fine, subsisting primarily on their star power, although lacking some much-needed chemistry to draw them together into a cohesive whole.
Another character that inserts itself into the story, uninvited, is the film’s woefully unconvincing CGI, which becomes painfully distracting and cheapens the aesthetic of the whole thing. Suppose you’re trying to whisk us away to a lavish Egyptian setting of wealth and indulgence. In that case, I’m afraid that shots of the scenery that look like they were taken directly from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey somewhat ruptures the illusion. Speaking of lavish settings, the displays of luxuriousness and opulence needed to be turned up several notches for them to go beyond corny and to reach camp. I really wanted Branagh to channel a bit of his inner Luhrmann here, but sadly the parties were trite and disappointing, not a whiff of Gatsby-ism to them at all.
This, I feel, is the root of the problem. The film is far too much in places – namely, any scene which features Armie Hammer simulating doggy style with a woman (and, yes, there is more than one) – and is desperately crying out for more in others. When adapting melodrama of the murder mystery variety it is very difficult to strike a balance of keeping it fresh and modern, while still staying true to the tropes and conventions of the source material – though it is possible, as we have seen with the likes of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019). There were moments when the script finally struck the right chord, and Branagh’s unassuming and awkward comedy provided welcome relief from the stuffy melodrama, giving us an insight into what could have been. But alas, the screenwriter’s “little grey cells” fail to function entirely as his heroes do. Therefore, the tricky case of modernizing Christie for the contemporary audience remains unsolved. Indeed, how they managed to create a result that is so strangely jarring and yet forgettable is an enigma befitting Poirot himself. P.S. MINOR SPOILER – I guess I should have known what a wild ride I was in for when the film opened with a dramatic, black and white, World War II backstory for a MOUSTACHE.
Written by Amy Strain for The Film Dispatch.