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We unpack whodunit in Death on the Nile, and what the experience of solving it has done to Hercule Poirot…
This article contains Death on the Nile spoilers.
It’s something we’ve seen Hercule Poirot do a lot across Kenneth Branagh’s two big screen adaptations of Agatha Christie mysteries. In both Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and this spring’s Death on the Nile, he sits alone at a table, accompanied by no one except his thoughts. Minus an opening sequence flashback set during the First World War, this is even how we’re introduced to Hercule in the 1930s. A man with a party of one.
Yet when we see that same solitary figure again at the end of Death on the Nile, and as he watches Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) sing a jazzy torch number in a London nightclub, he looks markedly different. The famous mustache is gone! The reason for its shaving is, of course, one aspect that gives the murder mystery at the heart of Nile some depth. How he solved it, and how it seemed to solve him, is detailed below.
As Hercule pretty thoroughly spells out during the movie’s climactic reveal sequence, the killing of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle (Gal Gadot) was orchestrated by her husband Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), as well as his lover once, and his lover still, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey).
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In both real life and in fiction, when a married woman winds up dead the husband is typically the first suspect. But the cleverness of Simon and Jacqueline’s plan was how they were able to deflect blame on either of them—presumably even from the audience—by way of some pretty convincing alibis. On the night of the murder, it seemed as though Jackie shot Simon in the leg and then attempted to turn the gun on herself. However, what actually occurred is she shot Simon with a blank (with only one blank in the chamber). He then held a scarf smeared with the red paint he’d stolen from the supplies of Euphemia Bouc (Annette Bening) to his leg, making the civilians in the room believe he was wounded.
In the time it took the younger Bouc (Tom Bateman) and Rosalie (Letitia Wright) to find the doctor and get Jackie sedated, Simon had retrieved Jackie’s gun, run up to the cabin of his sleeping wife, and coldly executed her at point blank range with a bullet to the brain. He then ran back to the dining room, shot his leg with an actual bullet, and threw the gun wrapped in the scarf into the Nile.
The actual reason for this was simple: Jackie planned it for Simon’s benefit. When we saw their theatrically lustful dance moves in the movie’s opening sequence, they meant it. She really was enamored with him, and though she may not have cared (much) for Linnet’s money, he was desperate to become rich. So to keep her lover happy, Jackie concocted the plan of Simon seducing her rich friend, and then their elaborate murder of her, which included Simon inviting all of Linnet’s friends who secretly held grudges, and therefore motives, against her to the party.
Alas, neither foresaw the emergence of the intrepid Hercule Poirot!
Perhaps the biggest red herring to also deflect blame on Simon and Jackie is one Christie conceived of in a rather contrived manner: a murder attempt on Linnet’s life that neither Simon or Jackie could’ve planned occurs at the temples Abu Simbel. As Simon and Linnet are sharing a seemingly romantic moment alone, a giant piece of ancient rock falls within mere feet of the pair, nearly smashing their heads in!
Simon wouldn’t have planned his own near demise, nor would Jackie who was at that time boarding the S.S. Karnak. That’s because it was Linnet’s cousin Andrew (Ali Fazal) who attempted to murder Linnet. As he claims later beneath Poirot’s withering gaze, it was a rash, spur of the moment decision because he knew that if Linnet looked at the contract he was trying to get her to sign in-depth when she returned home to London, she would figure out he was embezzling money from her. Rather than wait to be discovered as a thief of his own cousin, he claims to have temporarily lost his mind and tried to kill her.
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That Poirot was accept this excuse and keep Andrew’s secret is kind of baffling. It still was attempted murder, even if he (claims to have) regretted it later.
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Of course Linnet wound up being just one body on this not so rosy honeymoon—the inciting death, which was followed up with the deaths of Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie) and poor, dear Bouc.
As Poirot deduces, Simon of course could not have executed the murders given his hobbled condition following a self-inflicted wound, but Jacqueline could. When Poirot and Simon interrogated Louise, she said she could have seen the murderer if she had only smoked her cigarette outside her cabin. This was her way of hinting to Simon she saw him go into the cabin to murder his wife and knows his dirty secret. Presumably, she planned to blackmail him for an unknown sum. And, indeed, that sum will never be known since Jackie stole the doctor’s scalpel (perhaps to frame the other spurned lover aboard the ship) and sliced Louise ear-to-ear.
Similarly, Bouc saw this murder occur, but because he was in that moment hiding his own crime of stealing the murdered Linnet’s necklace to pay his debts, he could not say he saw Jackie with the knife without implicating himself. Eventually, Poirot pressures his old friend to reveal his guilt and announce who the killer is…. but with Simon Doyle in the room!
As Bouc is about to finger Jackie, her secret accomplice says “come on.” In the moment, it appears as if Simon is demanding Bouc to come out with who he saw kill Louise, but in actuality he is telling the hidden Jackie to put a bullet in Bouc’s throat!
In truth, it is because Branagh wants to add some depth and tragic understanding to his mentally Herculean protagonist. In the novel, the character of Bouc is not present on this particular adventure (nor dies!). The thief of the missing necklace is a man named Guido Richetti, as prejudiced a caricature of Italians as it sounds. And the person murdered by Jackie moments before revealing she saw who killed the maid is none other than Mrs. Otterbourne herself, who on the page is a romance novelist, and not a Black American blues singer.
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Yet in the film, Hercule Poirot, sans mustache, seems to be picking up a romance with Salome Otterbourne when the credits roll.
The reason goes back to the opening of the film and the overarching themes throughout this adaptation. At the beginning of the movie, we see the origins of Poirot’s life story, with the future detective serving in the Belgian Army during World War I. There, he is so badly injured by an explosion that his face is permanently disfigured above the lip line. However, his fiancée, a woman named Katherine, is not deterred by the scars and suggests he’ll simply grow a mustache.
As far as I’m aware, this backstory was entirely invented for the film (although actual Christie scholars are encouraged to correct me if wrong!). On the page, a much older Poirot spent the war as a refugee in Britain and was already a police detective before fighting broke out. However on-screen, the film suggests that he became the great detective by 1937, complete with mustache, because of that fateful encouragement to reinvent himself by his fiancée and, as we later learn, her death.
Intriguingly, it is only to Jacquelin, his future prey, whom he confesses this story, revealing that after his injury his bride-to-be was traveling to spend the Christmas of 1916 with him when her train was presumably bombed or derailed in some other manner, killing her. He shut himself off from the world after that and began living in his head. Dining alone.
“You could never understand what people would do for love,” Bouc says in his final words on this earth before being shot in the throat. He was attempting to chastise his friend for insisting on bringing him to justice for stealing (and returning) a necklace, as well as accuse him of being trapped within his cold intellect. How could this cerebral to a fault man, who would betray his own friends over a small larceny, understand that a person could have a momentary lapse in judgment and steal a necklace for love? The theft, though unforgivable, would allow him to remain wealthy while marrying Rosalie without his mother’s blessing.
And yet, the overarching theme is everyone does irrational things for love. Jackie planned the murder of her best friend, whom she apparently did like to a point, in order to satiate the greed of the man she loved; Jackie’s deception of stalking Simon and Linnet may have been feigned but also spoke of love’s obsession; and Bouc became a criminal so he could be with Rosalie, burden-free and debts paid. Even Poirot himself became the man we see today, this lonely genius, because he lost his great love 20 years earlier and has since hidden behind her suggested mustache as if it were an armored mask.
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Salome and her daughter both see this, with Salome speculating on the woman who left him so cynical about humanity. Rosalie, meanwhile, says he deserves to be alone because he is so cruel, and later after Bouc is dead, says she wants him unhappy because it makes him a great detective—the kind of who can solve Bouc’s murder.
Everything in the film is about the irrational things we do for love, even if it means becoming the most rational man in the world.
So when Poirot shows up at the nightclub at the end, he’s abandoned the mustache that became his camouflage, and he’s ready to be seen again as a human. He’s ready to again be someone who can understand love. And he’d like to start with Salome.
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I’m fairly certain this isn’t Agatha Christie’s Poirot any longer, but since this is likely to be the last time we see Branagh’s interpretation of the character, at least he goes out a little happier.
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Written by
David Crow |
David Crow is the movies editor at Den of Geek. He has long been proud of his geek credentials. Raised on cinema classics that ranged from…
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