by Gill Pringle

With Branagh once more reprising his dual roles of director as well as portraying legendary mustache-twirling Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, he describes the story’s theme as “the corrosive power of lust”.

Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones), Letitia Wright (Black Panther), Sophie Okonedo (Ratched, The Slap), Tom Bateman (Vanity Fair), Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Armie Hammer, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal (Victoria & Abdul) and Annette Bening all play passengers accused of killing Gal Gadot’s newlywed socialite Linnet Ridgeway Doyle.

Death on the Nile was first published in 1937. But if you think you know exactly how Branagh’s version will play out, then think again.

Enlisting two relatives of the famed author, Mathew and James Prichard, the Agatha Christie Estate became involved with production, providing an invaluable resource in understanding the author’s personal attitude towards this book, as well as introducing a few sneaky changes to the original storyline and characters.

FilmInk talks mystery, murder and mayhem with Kenneth Branagh and Annette Bening.

Five years ago, you assembled an extraordinary cast for Murder on the Orient Express and now you’ve done it again with Death on the Nile. Where do you begin trying to figure out who’s going to play these roles?

BRANAGH: “Well, you try to work with people you really admire. And I really admire all of these actors very much. I knew that I wanted to be a playing partner with them. I was really happy and privileged to do that. I knew that they would have great access to a sort of comedic slant on things or a sense of humour and compassion, all very smart actors. And so they all create surprises. So, for me, it was an excitement from the very first moment when everybody got into a very small boat on a real piece of water, under some rare, rare English sunshine, and we got bonded, and the excitement and the surprises began. It was amazing to work with this cast. They are tippity-top. I was super grateful and they’re all gorgeous.”

And Death on the Nile features a juicy love triangle?

BRANAGH: “We have a wealthy socialite’s attraction to a man who previously has been passionately entwined with an equally beautiful woman, whom he rejects then embraces and weds the other. There is a wedding party where a group of exotic and amazing people who claim to be their friends, surround them. Because of the karma generated when one woman steals another woman’s man, fireworks ensue. So, a human love triangle that goes bad, is the sort of rotten fruit at the centre of this murderous holiday.”

How does Michael Green’s screenplay modernise Death on the Nile while keeping it in its original 1930s setting?

BRANAGH: “It has a more youthful approach. Everything about the story is now younger and sexier, literally and aesthetically. But we were the lucky recipients of quite a lot of the sort of human texture that is part of why her books are so successful. She’s not merely someone who can write clever puzzles, she writes real people.”

Tom Bateman’s Bouc – from Murder on the Orient Express – returns, only this time with his mother, Euphemia, played by Annette Bening. Why did you wish to explore the relationship with his mother?

BRANAGH: “Michael Green very cleverly changes some of what people do from the book and we changed some characters. He also reduces the number. One thing we learned from this process, is that it’s good to just reduce the number of suspects so you can allow a little bit more room for character development. Bouc surprises people by – like everybody else in this story – having some kind of strong relationship to love, whether they’ve been rejected by it, whether they’re in the middle of it, and perhaps in the case of Bouc and Madame Bouc, there is one who’s in the full flush of it. And one who is perhaps resistant to or carries some kind of residue of the experience. And it was beautiful to see Annette and Tom play around that issue, of whether you think love is a good thing or not, or whether love is real; you mostly only ever lust… and lust is gonna fade. And when the lust fades, maybe people get angry and maybe behaviour changes. So, between those two, it felt like there was gonna be a very fascinating dynamic, which compressed some of what happened in the book, but it allowed for us to explore something very nice on screen with two terrific actors.”

Annette, can you talk about this new character of Euphemia, Bouc’s mother?

BENING: “Euphemia Bouc is a renowned painter. She’s entitled, disdainful and extremely protective of her son. She is in Egypt along with him to attend the wedding of his friend, Linnet. Euphemia is a newly created character for our particular way of telling this story. She is very much concerned, almost obsessed, with her son. I had a lot of fun reading about women of the period and the bohemian world at the turn of the century, learning about painters of the period, and where Euphemia might have trained and how that might have impacted her romantic life, which was a very important piece of understanding her.”

Death on the Nile was shot chronologically with a rehearsal built into production. How much did that help create a kind of theatrical atmosphere on set, and what did you draw from having this extraordinary group around you?

BENING: “For me, it’s sort of why we’re all actors, because we like to jump in together. And the time it takes for a group of actors to become a group and a little company and a family is about a minute, because that’s our job, that’s what we do. And it’s our joy. So, we were all very badly behaved. Ken was the only adult in the group, and he allowed us to behave badly and have so much fun. I had so much fun. Usually when people ask if you’ve had fun on a movie, it’s a lot of work and it’s crazy and the hours are long and you don’t want to say to people, ‘well, it’s not really that fun. It’s a lot of work’. But you say that because you don’t want to burst people’s bubble but, in this case, it really was, for me. It was just so joyous and kind of ruined me for the rest of my life because there will never be an experience that was so much fun.”

You’re reprising the role of Hercule Poirot. And it’s far from the first time that you’ve starred in one of your films. How challenging it is to direct yourself?

BRANAGH: “Well, it’s always difficult, I find acting difficult, I find directing difficult, whether I’m doing it well, whatever part of I’m doing. I am in this unusual position of, when I act in other people’s work, it’s a great privilege to get a chance to see how other directors do it. And frankly, you know, learn and develop your own way of working, whatever that is. But I do love actors. I do love acting, and I love watching this group of people act, I really, really enjoyed it. I enjoy these people, everybody does it differently. Everybody arrives differently at something. And so for me, it’s a total education. I feel while I’m kind of caught in that sort of enthusiastic response, it’s not just enthusiastic, it’s fascinated by, especially given how these are also thoroughbred talents. I love watching that. I felt like that was my secret – my ability to be able to watch, look and learn from those I was working with. It’s not false modesty or anything, I really did enjoy that. And somehow that stops me panicking. Doesn’t make it any less difficult, but it stops me panicking.”

How do you play a woman of the 1930s that speaks to women in 2022? How do their views on love and romance reflect or contrast with women of today?

BENING: “Well, in my case, I was very lucky because this woman who had already been created by Michael Green and Ken in their imaginations, sort of got handed over to me. She is a woman of great passion. And, I think that, when she started as an artist, she had some great love affairs, as she’s an aristocrat, but she, I think got very deeply involved with some people that hurt her very deeply. She operated a little bit outside of the norm of society always, and now her main interest is her son.

“I think she’ll do anything to protect him, and that her own cynicism came from this deep injury that she had with a particular man. All of that just kind of made sense to me. She is capable of doing anything and there’s a certain amount of what’s behind what she’s doing, that we don’t really understand.”

Many of your crew has been on this road with you for a while now, and you’ve created these extraordinary worlds together. How important is it for you to keep your crew together?

BRANAGH: “I’ve gotta tell you that the crew get very excited by the actors, so from the word go, when they see the new people coming aboard the project and the boat, I think it’s very inspiring. One of the things I’m happy about is that of course you work with people you trust, and you want to work with new people every time, of course, as well. And that was a great opportunity with this cast. But to have a director of photography (Haris Zambarloukos) and a production designer (Jim Clay) and a composer (Patrick Doyle), people who have been around, I hope that it brings an atmosphere onto the set that makes actors coming in feel that respect which causes a big wave of respect and love coming back. These are all cinema fans who are making these films, so they get very excited about pointing cameras and recording the work of this kind of group. But also, we have a way of working now which obviously tries to give as much space as possible to what I think is the heart of something like this, alongside all the spectacle and all the glamour regarding the sets. But at the heart is the human heart. So, the goal at the centre of this is the performances, I think. And everybody on our crew appreciates and tries to support that.”

Death on the Nile is in cinemas February 10, 2022


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