The works of mystery queen Agatha Christie have been adapted for the screen numerous times with nearly fifty feature films and well-over one-hundred television episodes/movies, and even a brief sampling of her writing makes it easy to see why. Her books and stories deliver tight, engaging, intricately woven mysteries, and they’re a natural fit for film. Kenneth Branagh directed one of the better examples with 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, where he plays Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot with an energetic and entertaining determination (in addition to some legendary facial hair). Originally scheduled for late 2020, his follow-up adaptation of Death on the Nile has finally set sail into theaters, and while it’s a far bumpier ride the end destination remains a fun, smartly crafted mystery.
It’s 1937, and Poirot (Branagh) is on vacation in Egypt. Perfect soft-boiled eggs and sightseeing are on his agenda, but a chance meeting with old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) changes his plans. Bouc is there with his mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), both guests on the lavish honeymoon of Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), and soon Poirot is swept up in the celebration as it moves to a private boat tour along the Nile. Also along for the ride are a mix of family, friends, and assistants, but Simon’s jealous ex, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) — who’s been stalking the happy couple since their wedding — has also managed to secure a room on board. Linnet asks Poirot for his help as she feels her life is in danger, and soon enough, she’s found murdered in her bed.
Death on the Nile is a solid enough watch, but it reveals the one mystery that not even Poirot could solve — what exactly did Branagh do to deserve this cast? There’s no denying that the anti-vaxxer (Letitia Wright), the alleged cannibal (Hammer), and the charisma-vacuum (Gadot) are big problems, but while the other supporting players are varying degrees of talented very few of them bring any kind of real weight and personality to the film. The best ensemble mysteries, and I’m including the likes of Knives Out (2019), Clue (1985), and Murder on the Orient Express here, thrive on the presence and engagement of their suspects. Branagh’s previous outing sees him joined by Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and others. That’s an insanely interesting ensemble, and it’s one that Death on the Nile just can’t touch.
The only bright side to Gadot’s casting is that she’s murdered at the end of the first act, but most of the others remain through to the end. Hammer is capable of exuding personality with the right role (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., 2016; Free Fire, 2017), but in full posh mode he’s as dull as his onscreen wife. The pool of suspects extends to Wright, Bening, Mackey, Rose Leslie, Sophie Okonedo, and a restrained Russell Brand, and only Bening, Mackey, and Okonedo show up with any real fire in their belly.
Still, you work with what you have, and Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot is once again a wonderfully entertaining and affecting turn. A prologue sequence sees a younger Poirot wounded during World War I before revealing the origin of his fanciful mustache, and while it seems like exactly the misstep sequels tend to make it ultimately serves as a glimpse behind the man’s self-imposed curtain. It’s also one of the few additions or tweaks that Branagh and returning screenwriter Michael Green make to Christie’s tale as the filmmaker shows the same deference to her words as he does to William Shakespeare’s earlier in his career. Her mystery remains intact, and it’s such a well-constructed one that not even knowing the killer’s identity beforehand can ruin things.
Branagh is on screen for the bulk of Death on the Nile, and while Poirot is a man who’s constantly watching and listening, it’s the interrogation scenes where the film comes most alive. It’s also where Branagh gets the best from his performers — most likely as they try to keep up with his marvelous and memorable turn as the great detective. As with the earlier film, the interrogations adventures in dialogue and expression as Branagh/Poirot dodges, weaves, and strikes with masterful control. His performance is the best of several good things in Murder on the Orient Express, but here it’s the best of only a few. Happily for fans of Christie, Branagh, and the first film, it’s also more than enough to make this an enjoyable watch.
It can be a struggle, though, as Death on the Nile relies too frequently on cg mattes and backdrops that can’t help but feel artificial. Sweeping camera movements of the ship’s progress down the river don’t help as actual live-action shots make the cg ones look even worse. Where Orient Express benefits from the bulk of the film unfolding on an unmoving train, here we’re constantly on the go with exteriors that don’t always convince. Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos capture the lavish production design of the ship’s interiors far better with one tracking shot running the length of the craft similar to the one following Poirot’s boarding of Orient Express.
Death on the Nile faces an uphill (upriver?) climb as the obstacles — underwhelming cast, over-reliance on cg — can at times be enough to make the trip feel doomed. The strength of Christie’s tale combined with Branagh’s love for the character ultimately work to keep it afloat, though, leading to an ending that once more leaves fans hoping for more to come. This time, though, it’s no tease of a sequel that piques our interest, it’s a deeper, sadder look at the man behind the mustache.
Related Topics: Death on the Nile