The kindest backhanded compliment one could pay Kenneth Branagh’s lackluster new adaptation of Death On The Nile is that it throws a flattering light on the modest pleasures the actor-director wrung from a different Agatha Christie page-turner five years ago. Murder On The Orient Express was no masterclass in suspense, but there was charm in its aspirations to an archaic form of lavish, adult-targeted blockbuster—how it cast a gaggle of finely dressed movie stars as the leading suspects in a classic locked-room mystery.
Branagh secured nearly double the budget for this sequel, but you’d never guess it from what’s on screen. Death On The Nile feels chintzier in every respect, with a much lower-wattage cast of potential murderers and a digitally summoned exotic locale about as immersive as a screensaver. If a viewer didn’t know better, they might assume they were seeing the fourth or fifth entry in a sputtering franchise, not the direct follow-up to a global box-office hit.
After a number of release dates scuttled by the pandemic, Nile arrives just in time for… Valentine’s Day? The film’s actually not such an odd fit for the holiday, given the extent to which this latest case from the files of Hercule Poirot revolves around crimes of passion, and with an increased emphasis on the dating prospects (and tragic romantic history) of the great Belgian detective. The poor timing is more a matter of casting, a.k.a. the inconveniently prominent roles occupied by Armie Hammer and Letitia Wright, two actors now mired in controversy. Branagh, too, might be irked by the project’s belated emergence at this particular moment; the last thing he needs during awards season is a bloated disaster bobbing loudly into view.
Like the star-studded ’70s adaptation of Nile, his take is set primarily in 1937, the year Christie’s novel was published. Again, Poirot (Branagh, reprising the lead role of idiosyncratic shamus via mannered eccentricities and cartoon facial hair) finds his vacation interrupted by an invitation to ride in luxury, in this case aboard a large steamboat traversing the eponymous river. And once more, a murder is committed on his watch. (This guy stumbles into whodunits about as frequently as John McClane finds himself at the center of hostage situations; the second greatest detective in the world might inquire as to why bodies seem to turn up every time his name is on the manifest.)
The leisurely voyage down the Nile is the last leg on the honeymoon of wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot) and her new husband, the dashing Simon Doyle (Hammer). The two have been doggedly pursued across Egypt by Simon’s former fiancee, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), who he coldly left for Linnet six months earlier. Naturally, the jilted lover ends up aboard the boat, joining a passenger list of potential culprits, some from Christie’s novel and some not: Poirot’s playboy friend Bouc (a returning Tom Bateman); Bouc’s painter mother (Annette Bening); a whip-smart showbiz manager (Wright) with whom Bouc has become smitten; a tough, sultry jazz singer (Sophie Okonedo) who sends Poirot’s own wounded heart aflutter; an aristocrat-turned-communist (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse (Dawn French); a lawyer (Ali Fazal); a doctor (Russell Brand); and a maid (Rose Leslie).
As in Murder, Branagh fails to establish a clear sense of space, neglecting the layout of his moving set in favor of a lot of restless flourishes. (The angles are as exaggerated as the accents.) At least in that film, he could exploit the compositional constrictions—and the claustrophobia—of a train’s tight passageways and small compartments. There’s nothing remotely convincing about his tour of Egypt. Much of Death On The Nile was shot in a giant tank on a soundstage, and it shows: The actors are unflatteringly overlit by the glow of Branagh’s artificial sun, while the ancient wonders are reduced to gimcrack illusions—a CGI mirage of pyramids, an almost styrofoam recreation of the Temple of Abu Simbel. The extravagance of Murder has been flattened into faux-epic tackiness, justifiable only for how it underscores the material’s implied critique of conspicuous consumption. What’s the point of shooting on 65mm if your grand vistas are this green-screen phony?
The real problem with the movie, though, is how damn long it makes us wait for the gumshoe stuff. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a full hour elapses before the first corpse is uncovered and Poirot gets down to deducing and accusing. What’s the hold up? First, we have to wade through a flashback to World War I—handsomely shot in black-and-white, like the much smaller movie the director made afterwards—that distractingly, digitally de-ages Branagh to throw some light on the roots of the detective’s hard-earned romantic cynicism, while offering an origin story of his mighty mustache. (As it turns out, he grew it for both practical and sentimental reasons.) After that, Death On The Nile simply takes its sweet time getting to the crime, with scenes of Gadot cosplaying as Cleopatra (her dry run to the future role she’s controversially nabbed) and intersecting romantic subplots for the sleuth and his young, excitable pal. The real mystery, a tagline might reasonably read, was love.
Branagh goes broad on both sides of the camera, leaning harder still into his conception of Poirot as a puckish cutup, even as he labors to deepen the caricature through all the moony romantic-comedy business on the margins of the investigation. Honestly, the movie could use more overacting; the ensemble is short on both heavyweights and hams. (Brand, ineffectually cast against type, delivers what has to be the least animated performance of his career.) Death On The Nile only really staggers to life in its home stretch, when returning screenwriter Michael Green starts stacking Christie’s clues and red herrings and convoluted explanations on top of each other. The climactic accusing-parlor sequence delivers the promised thrill, the reliable rush of puzzle pieces falling into place. But why does everything before it feel so tired, so drained of fun? That’s a mystery that might stump even the great Hercule Poirot.