It’s hard to believe Kenneth Branagh’s new film has finally made its way out to the public. Completed in 2019, and suffering the fate of nearly film slated to release in 2020, Death on the Nile took two years to make it to the big screen. Amidst an ongoing worldwide pandemic, Branagh’s second Hercule Poirot film comes to us seemingly with little, to no fanfare. Its predecessor, Murder on the Orient Express, was actually a surprise hit back in 2017. Though I can’t say it was a film I particularly cared for. But, it earned just over $300 million worldwide and was a major win for mid-budget adult dramas. Death on the Nile certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it has enough of an old fashioned and stylish feel to entertain for two hours.
Branagh is once again predictably campy as Poirot, the giant mustache touting detective. However, saying that is not a critique. Branagh certainly seems to be having a lot of fun in the role. It helps that he is also very good as this character, giving a mysterious and layered performance in two movies now. The movie opens with an origin story of his iconic mustache. It’s a moment so unnecessary to the overall story, I kind of respected its inclusion. While vacationing in Egypt, Poirot becomes entangled in the lives of a newly married couple. Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) plan to embark on their honeymoon down the Nile with several guests joining them. Poirot is brought along as a bodyguard of sorts, due to the fact that Simon’s ex-fiancé Jackie (Emma Mackey) has followed them to Egypt.
The movie certainly takes its time. A slow moving first hour eventually leads to the whodunit story at the heart of the film. Branagh’s stylish direction and the period flourishes make it a mostly watchable affair, and certainly an improvement upon Orient Express. Its cast is largely entertaining, and dialing it up to match the movies colorful look and feel. Gadot and Hammer however are not good in the movie. Gadot continues to be an actress who’s constant appearances in lead roles are befuddling to say the least. Her chemistry with Hammer is non-existent, and her charisma as an actor is undeniably bland.
Hammer has been good before, but here, he’s sporting an often laughable British accent in a performance that feels hollow. With more charismatic leads, Death on the Nile could have really been a fun throwback to an old school filmmaking. The rest of the cast is really quite good, but no one really stands out. It’s a film with an all-star cast that does feel over-stuffed. Annette Benning, Tom Bateman and Russell Brand are among the casts best. And still, they all really don’t get enough to do and truly stand out.
Death on the Nile seems to have a more predictable ending that Orient Express, but the film does more than enough to keep the tension up. It does however lack the narrative suspense of something like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, or some of the great whodunit’s and noir’s of cinema history. Branagh seems to have a reverence for classic literature and Shakespeare. Much of Branagh’s directorial career in the 1990’s included Shakespeare adaptations. He crafts, along with the films production design and cinematography, a fully realized world of Agatha Christie’s novel. It’s glamorous sets and visuals are evocative of a time in Hollywood were period pieces ruled the landscapes.
The shortcomings of Death on the Nile mostly revolve around its slow first hour. It seems like it takes forever to get the characters on the actual boat where most of the action takes place. Once there, the layers start to get pulled back in a familiar, but still fun way. It is only in the films final twenty minutes when the plot really starts cooking. By then, it almost feels too late for the films moderately exciting conclusion to fully right the ship. Death on the Nile will work mostly as a lazy Sunday afternoon watch rather than a must-see theatrical experience. Branagh however is interesting enough as Poirot, and directs these movies with a sense of style that makes them visually exciting at the very least. Death on the Nile may not be a great whodunit, but it’s a worthwhile addition to the pantheon of the genre.