Very few people understand theatre quite like Sir Kenneth Brannagh. The Irish-born actor/director trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts before making the move to the silver screen. His catalouge is relatively small, currently sitting at 18 directing credits in total, with his primary focus appearing to be on the stage- and this is reflected in his film repertoire. Sir Brannagh is most well known for his adaptations of William Shakespeare plays like Henry V (1989), Hamlet (1996), and As You Like It (2006), which are grand in scale and beautifully designed. With this taste for the theatrical in mind, it is perhaps no surprise that his latest endeavor Death on the Nile is full of grandeur.
Based on the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie, the film follows world-renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as he attempts to uncover who is behind an increasing number of murders on a boat cruise along The Nile. Each person there is present to celebrate a newly-wed couple, and each has a possible motive, but as the murderer commits more acts of violence the list of suspects quickly dwindles. This kind of story is rife with oddly charming melodrama- the screams, the gasps, and the wild accusations. Another director might attempt to ground the story in gritty realism, but not Brannagh. The bright colours are accompanied by staggering shots of Egypt. The sunsets are bright orange and the flares red as if the scenes were captured on canvas with acrylic paint. This is not a film that asks to be taken seriously, but one that asks you to react however you see fit. You too can gasp, scream, and throw wild accusations.
This is reflected in the acting. Sex Education’s Emma Mackay portrays the primary suspect, a jilted ex-fiance, and with a powerhouse performance like this, it’s no surprise that she’s quickly becoming one of the finest actresses of this generation. Equally exquisite is Brannagh as the beloved Belgian, who delights in holding a room’s attention and is marvelous at doing so. The climax of the story, as with all murder mysteries, is the unveiling of the truth, which Poirot delivers with an enticing monologue. The rest of the cast is stacked with famous faces like Russel Brand, Annette Benning, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders who each revel in the role they have been given.
Arguably the largest name on the list is Gal Gadot, who portrays the blushing bride. Unfortunately, her performance may be the weakest. The emotion is there but the fluctuating accent quickly becomes a distraction. She goes from sounding French to American to British in the span of a few syllables and I’m now 90% certain it was meant to be French. Some may also feel like the plot takes too long to get to the murder, as it occurs shortly before the halfway mark, but with a cast this large full of so many introductions, it’s understandable.
For this theatre kid, watching Death on the Nile felt like being back in an auditorium. I can think of no higher praise than that.
Every director in Hollywood has their own distinctive creative flair and artistic vision. For example, you may not recognise the name Wes Anderson, but all of his work has similar dialogue and his shots fill the frame in a unique way, so if I was to tell you he produced both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Fantastic Mr Fox you’d think “oh that was him”. I find myself compelled by his work, as well as the work of others like Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Christopher Nolan (Tenet), but there is a lesser recognised filmography that I also admire, and that is the work of Sir Kenneth Brannagh. From acting on stage, to acting on screen, to stepping behind the camera, he’s a man of many, many talents though he’s most widely known these days for his 4 hour long film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which he was writer, producer and titular actor. As an aside, if you want to experience Hamlet but it isn’t currently playing in a theatre near you, this is the next best thing. It’s probably the closest adaptation we have ever and will ever see on screen and Brannagh brings such a scale of grandeur that you’ll never mistake Prince Hamlet for anything other than royalty. So it is perhaps no surprise that he was hired as the producer for the MCU’s most splendid and theatrical Avenger – The Mighty Thor.
It’s the simple tale of an arrogant God, banished from his homeworld by his father, who meets a girl and learns to be humble. Meanwhile, his unknowingly adopted brother attempts to prove himself to their father by slaughtering their greatest enemies. There are two distinct plotlines in Thor, one about the God himself on Earth and one of Loki back on their homeworld of Asgard, and both of them are given an appropriate amount of attention. The story of Thor being so arrogant that he starts a war with the Frost Giants, meaning his father has no choice but to banish him is fraught with emotion. It’s clear that Odin trusts his son to redeem himself, otherwise he would not have put the hammer Mjölnir within his reach. The friendships that Thor forms with Dr Erik Selvig, Jane Foster, and Darcy Lewis are integral to him acknowledging and dealing with his feelings, which is a very human trait (explaining why he is so fond of this dumb little planet and the people on it). He laughs, cries, falls in love, and ultimately realises that battles are only worth fighting if it is to protect the people you care about. In the end, he believes this so strongly that he is willing to sacrifice himself twice – once physically to The Sentinel and once emotionally when he destroys the Bifrost.
Then there is our second main character, Thor’s younger brother and the God of Mischief, Loki. He really started a trend of sympathetic villains and re-watching this film again, I kind of get it. Loki isn’t as much of a villainous character as he is a tragic victim of circumstance. He has lived his entire life in the shadow of his brother, is attempting to put a stop to war that Thor started, and he’s just discovered that not only is he adopted, but he was a Frost Giant baby stolen (saved?) from his birth home by Odin. The Joker once so eloquently said that “all it takes is one bad day” and Loki is having one of those for sure. His attempted destruction of Jötunheimr, planet of the Frost Giants, is a clear act of desperation for validation and his final brawl with Thor is riddled with anguish. I won’t sit here and tell you that what he did was right, or that it completely negates his actions, but I will tell you that I understand why he did it. We are going to see Loki go through a decade long redemption arc moving forward but, arguably, a redemption arc is only as good as the person and actions you are redeeming and the character of Loki (and the acting of Tom Hiddleston) nailed it from day one.
The 4th MCU film to be released and the 6th chronologically, Thor is an interesting one. Until Guardians of the Galaxy 4 years later, his was the only instalment to take place in space, but even after that it held the title of the first MCU film in the timeline to be set there. Now that title goes to Captain Marvel, although it only really uses space for the first and last 20 minutes, whilst Thor is practically drenched in it. Even on Earth, there are descriptions of the Tree of Yggdrasil (first mentioned in The First Avenger) and explanations for how the Bifrost works which make it all sound so simple. The story is fantastical, but still feels grounded to the parameters of the universe set out by the MCU. The continuity from the previous films is present in the form of Agent Phil Coulson who, at this point, is essentially the lynchpin of the MCU. Sure, there’s Nick Fury, but he’s still more of a shadowy figure whilst Coulson is physically present in 4 of these films. He isn’t present for The First Avenger, because he is a child at the time it takes place, and he isn’t present in The Incredible Hulk because he’s dealing with the events of Iron Man 2 and Thor at the time. He has been Nick Fury’s right hand man for quite some time now, and he is so freaking likable that it’s no wonder he became a fan favourite. My fiancé has often asked why Phil is as liked as he is, and I can’t say for sure… but his general attitude, the way he plays the straight man to the absurdity around him and his tragic (unnecessary) conclusion certainly all play a part.
There’s also a small amount of set-up going on in Thor. We are introduced to Clint Barton/Hawkeye and it’s clear through his very brief interactions with Coulson that the two have a professional history. This now means that we have been introduced to all 6 members of the original Avengers line-up, in time for the team up itself. Thor also sets up his own appearance in the following film through his final conversation with Coulson, in which he determines his status as an ally and that, should he be required again, he will return. Meanwhile, the post-credits scene is a direct set-up for Avengers Assemble as it shows Selvig meeting with Fury to discuss working on The Tesseract, and shows that Loki survived his (first) supposed death. This also reintroduces our favourite Cosmic Cube, which hasn’t been seen since the end of Captain Marvel, 3 films ago. The biggest setup however is that Thor shows us exactly why Loki would want to go after Earth in particular. Not only is it home to people that Thor cares about, but it also contains the greatest source of power in the known universe. It’s a war for revenge and self-gain.
To me, the only issues with the film are purely subjective. First is the romance between Thor and Jane Foster which is going to bug you if you aren’t a fan of romance in your superhero movies. Personally, I don’t mind it because I think it’s one of the better MCU love stories, although that isn’t really a high bar. The second is unavoidable and one of those “fun facts” that people love to bring up – Thor’s eyebrows. Actor Chris Hemsworth wore a blond wig for this film, and to make sure his naturally dark eyebrows match, they were dyed blond. It’s especially odd here because that decision is never made again and, personally, I think he looks better without them dyed. However it is worth noting that naturally blond people can and do have naturally blond eyebrows, and much of the filmic medium gives people blond hair without changing their eyebrows. So Kenneth Brannagh’s decision here is the most accurate, we’re just not used to seeing it. Apart from these two things, Thor is brilliantly paced, well written, beautifully scored and visually stunning. It’s a perfect prelude to Avengers Assemble and proof once again that the sole purpose of origin stories does not need to be launching a cinematic universe. In fact, it shouldn’t be.