Death on the Nile offers gorgeous visuals and a stacked (if not troubled) cast, making for another flashy Agatha Christie adaptation from the director and star.
One thing you have to admire about Sir Kenneth Branagh is his dedication, not just to his craft but the style he clearly adores. The Oscar-nominated renaissance man has been a creative talent seemingly resistant to the changing moviemaking times. No matter the Hollywood era, Branagh has somehow found a place for his more classical tendencies of acting and directing over the last 35 years. He’s brought his own thespian touch to modern takes on Hamlet, Frankenstein, Harry Potter, Thor, and even Tom Clancy to varying degrees of success, but success nevertheless.
Just this week alone, he scored three new Oscar nominations for his 2021 passion project Belfast while rolling out a whole new movie he directed and stars in. Maybe this is a sign of how reliable he is as a creative force. Whatever the new trends are, whoever the hottest actors may be and however people like their movies at any time, Branagh stays dedicated to bringing the styles of old into current light by any means necessary.
So despite a global pandemic delaying its release and a couple cast members catching some bad press, Death on the Nile is here to show off what Branagh does best: toast a bygone era of movies with a fresher bottle of champagne. Once again playing Agatha Christie’s mustached detective Hercule Poirot, Branagh takes us to the titular river in Egypt to attend the wedding of glamorous socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and the boisterous Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer).
The couple have invited a rogue’s gallery of guests, including Poirot’s friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his stuck-up mother (Annette Bening), Linnet’s lawyer cousin (Ali Fazal), Linnet’s godmother (Jennifer Saunders), her nurse/companion (Dawn French), Linnet’s maid (Rose Leslie), and even famed blues singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo), along with her niece (Letitia Wright). There’s even Linnet’s former fiancé/doctor (Russell Brand) and Simon’s former fiancé who also happens to be an old friend of Linnet’s (Emma Mackey), who shows up to the boat uninvited and is convinced Simon will come back to her by any means necessary. One night, gunshots ring out and someone is found dead, so Poirot has to step-up and sniff out which of these wedding guests had murder on their minds.
This is certainly a flashier and more expansive mystery than Branagh’s last turn at adapting Agatha Christie with Murder on the Orient Express. For one thing, it looks gorgeous, both in the lavish design of the sets and costumes as well as with the warm and lush imagery captured by Belfast cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. Branagh is no stranger to lavish sets, but he manages to weave his characters into the looks of 1930s Egypt like the fancy tapestry worn by the actors. You should worry about losing track of said actors as the 127-minute runtime just isn’t enough for every member of the stacked cast to leave their mark.
In fact, the over two-hour runtime is used to showcase two tones that ram into each other more than they gel into one cohesive story. The first hour setting up the marriage and the characters is a gaudy dinner theater production with the actors playing so hard to the audience, you half expect Graham Norton to show up for the wedding toast. But then, right at the hour mark, the titular Death finally happens and the movie takes a hard turn into its mystery as the actors follow suit with expressions of grimace and intimidation. It doesn’t derail the movie per se, but it makes you almost forget the entire first half and wonder why Branagh didn’t jump right into the suspense.
Branagh’s clever sleuth is the one served best in that flashy first hour as the script by Michael Green (who also adapted Murder on the Orient Express) gives Poirot plenty of character development through his reasoning for being lonely and even the origins of his kooky moustache. As for the mystery itself, Green and Branagh do a clever job in their respective positions throwing the audience off the very obvious culprits of the scheme revealed in the tense climax. Compared to Orient Express, though, the mystery feels more rushed instead of meticulously set up over the course of the film.
Despite the trouble some of his actors have gotten into recently, Branagh certainly knows how to cast his movies…mostly. Point blank, Gal Gadot is awful here. She certainly has the look and presence of a Golden Age Hollywood starlet, but her emotional range is notably limited to “alluring” and “mildly concerned.” Perhaps what’s gotten Gadot as far as she has in her career is that she’s either had a minimal presence in a movie or her acting is supported by interesting background elements. Death on the Nile puts a lot of weight on Gadot’s acting skills and unfortunately, it exposes how limited her skillset is.
On the opposite end of the acting spectrum, Emma Mackey effortlessly jumps between romantic, manic, and lonesome all in one scene. The Sex Education star fleshes out the character’s origins and motive right from the get-go, and as illogical as it is for her to show up for the lavish wedding, she gives the movie a much-needed jolt of tension every time she walks into frame. She knows exactly what type of lavish old-fashioned production she’s in, as does Armie Hammer with his pencil mustache, radiant spray tan, and Chiclet-white teeth. Hammer’s pompous British accent and exacerbated looks of stress lets him mug his way through the few scenes he has both with Mackey, with whom he has palpable chemistry, and Gadot, with whom he is certainly aware of whenever she’s in the room, sure.
As for Branagh, he plays Poirot with less quirk than in Murder on the Orient Express and is more like an audience avatar gawking at the upper class excess. It’s more fun to watch him bounce off the rest of the cast: he shows whimsy with Tom Bateman, intimidation with Ali Fazal, and he doesn’t mind being put down by the pout of Annette Bening. Some of the best scenes of the movie are when he and Sophie Okonedo trade flirty comments as two closed-off elders waiting for the other to drop their guard and connect.
Poirot’s development into a world-weary man wondering how he’ll spend the rest of his days is actually more interesting than the mystery itself, or perhaps the mystery would’ve been more symbolic to his journey if there was a little more time afforded to the whodunnit. Again, the movie’s two moods clash more than combine, making for one good pitch of Poirot trying to save his heart and another pitch for a mystery with too little time on its hands to be anything other than procedural.
Yet even with a lesser story, Branagh is in no way shape or form slacking off. Death on the Nile is tonally askew but still pretty entertaining for what it is. It’s easily one of the best-looking movie mysteries in some time and most of the cast knows how much camp to bring the product. Branagh remains a skilled craftsman and doesn’t let the prestige of source material drain a movie of being fun. It’s also commendable how little of his ego is in front of the camera, turning the charismatic sleuth into a near side character to make way for the rest of his actors. It makes one wonder what other genres Branagh’s technical skill could be applied to. His restlessness clearly hasn’t been shunned by Hollywood, so why stop now?
Death on the Nile is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.