'Death on the Nile' review: Branagh's lavish whodunit improves on its predecessor
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
Kenneth Branagh is back on the Hercule Poirot train (pun intended) following the success of his Agatha Christie adaptation “Murder on the Orient Express” in “Death on the Nile,” another old-fashion whodunit outfitted with a lavish eye for suspense (and some crummy looking CGI pyramids). Again tackling directing duties, Branagh’s long gestated sequel finally makes port after being greenlit in 2017 and getting swept up in the Fox/Disney merger and shelved because of COVID and behind the scenes drama surrounding several of its main stars. Lucky for Branagh, “Death on the Nile” remains a classic staple in the Christie library and even if you know where this ship is headed, the filmmaker is wise to flesh out Poirot’s fractured history (plus the origins of that signature handlebar mustache) and give the mystery, one of a lovers quarrel, some emotional and unexpected heft. Plus, for those of us who didn’t read the 1937 novel (guilty as charged), it’s fun deducing from the ginormous suspect list who’s doing the slaying.
In addition to his directing obligations, Branagh steps in front of the camera (again) playing the Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot who finds himself entangled in another topsy-turvy mystery aboard the S.S. Karnak while vacationing in Egypt. The choppy looking green screen rubbish notwithstanding, Poirot is courted by an old pal, Bouc (Tom Bateman - returning) to partake in the festivities of newlywed couple Simon and Linnet Doyle (Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot) whom are dealing with the former’s jaded lover Jacqueline (Emma Mackey - turning up the heat) stalking them at nearly every turn. Soon it becomes apparent Poirot might not be here for the delicious desserts or a party among friends, but a mediator and eventual investigator into something far more sinister.
“Death on the Nile” improves on “Orient Express” in its approach to the characters by not using them as cheap exposition for the sake of introducing red herrings. Indeed the ensemble of performers, rounded out by Annette Benning, Letita Wright, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Russell Brand, and Ali Fazal, all have motive for the murder on the Karnak, but they’re each given a moment to craft throughlines because Branagh is wise not to confine them to one room until the final reveal, which unspools in one hypnotic sequence. Branagah is so crisp and refined in his delivery as Poirot, you’d believe this man if he said jumping off a cliff would improve your health.
Part of that belongs to Michael Green’s sturdy screenplay as it allows Branagh the levity to wear all of Poirot’s scars (literally) on his face. And a confrontation late in the game between himself and another suspect breaks down the sleuth’s compartmentalization and reminds the audience this man is, too, but a human searching for answers. The use of close-ups and wide lens helps create a barrier for the audience to peek inside the mindset of everyone scurrying the Karnak (and keep a mental checklist) but none more so than Poirot. Despite the problematic nature around some of the cast members, “Death on the Nile'' stays afloat on their sensibilities, instincts, and the backbone of Christie whose masterful character profiles and knack for engrossing narratives hasn’t aged a day.
DEATH ON THE NILE opens in theaters Friday, February 11th.