Review by C.J. Bunce
We first previewed the big-budget Death on the Nile here at borg back in 2018, possibly the most pandemic-delayed film of any. Based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel, it’s the second in Branagh’s series of opulent, major cast, big-screen films after 2018’s Murder on the Orient Express (reviewed here). That movie was far more spectacle, more Hollywood, a faithful, exciting film filled with genre stars including Branagh as Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot, plus Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, and Penélope Cruz, with a particularly engaging performance by Tom Bateman as Poirot’s friend Bouc. Bouc, a new character brought along by Branagh is the only returning character with Poirot for Death on the Nile.
A sort of Christie twist on Romeo and Juliet, the story and its core murder plot on Egypt’s great river remains identifiable, but Branagh updates nearly everything else, unlike in his first Christie adaptation. So like Branagh’s Frankenstein, this really is Branagh’s Death on the Nile, although also credit the changes to writer Michael Green (Logan). After a theatrical run beginning in February, it’s now available on Vudu and digital and other home media.
Death on the Nile stars Branagh, and his Poirot is not only the investigator on the case, this story makes him the true centerpiece, a more personal look at the character that places his role at the heart of the whodunnit. The new round of suspect is not quite as A-list as his prior Christie adaptation, with suspects played by Annette Bening (Captain Marvel, American President), Sophie Okonedo (Aeon Flux, Hellboy), British comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Russell Brand (Arthur, Ballers), Armie Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Rebecca), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman, Red Notice), Ali Fazal (Furious 7), Rose Leslie (Luther, Case Histories), Letitia Wright (Black Panther, Humans, Doctor Who), and newer actress Emma Mackey.
Despite the posters, the breakout characters belong to Mackey, who is at the bad corner of the story’s love triangle, and Okonedo, a 1930s jazz singer who becomes the object of Poirot’s attention–possibly even romantically–a “to be continued” bit of the film. This is another closed-room mystery, and viewers will either see the result as obvious, or they’ll take Branagh’s bait and follow his red herrings to anyone.
All the actors–in performances that border on melodrama–get showcased, except possibly Hammer, whose whiny loverboy is probably his least interesting role. We’ve arrived at the point where Bening is at the top of the thespian pool, representing the only Hollywood royalty of the cast, playing Bouc’s conniving mother, a role similar to Pfeiffer’s in Branagh’s last Christie film. French and Saunders dig into a new realm from their comedy days. Gadot seems to play that center-stage star yet again, although she has a more dramatic part here than in any of her past films as the key driver of the story. Mackey steals the scenes from Gadot and almost everyone–as Gadot’s character’s competitor for love. Wright gets to give a great riot act speech to Poirot, which will be fun for fans of Christie’s hero. Leslie is underplayed and reserved in a powerful performance as an underling in a world of excessive wealth. And those who know Brand only as comedian and celebrity will be surprised with his acting chops as the doctor on the case.
Branagh seems to be building his own “cinematic universe,” complete with his own Bond, international locales, quirks of the hero, and fine fashion, furnishings, and food. The film lacks in its subplots, in its collateral murders, and in forging a coherent path to the solution to the mystery. It’s more glitz than gravity, unnecessarily over-complicated, resolves too quickly, and last but certainly not least, it over-relies on pop music of the era to establish setting. Murder on the Orient Express is more fun, but Death on the Nile is a bit better as story goes–still on the dull side for a mystery–and certainly less improbable than “everyone was the murderer.” Primarily filmed with blue screens, only one scene establishes the Egypt mystique of the title–more apt would have been Murder on a Steamboat.
David Suchet’s series remains a better way to get your fix of Hercule Poirot. Death on the Nile is primarily a treat for fans of Kenneth Branagh, the actor, and his moviemaking style as director. Catch it streaming on Vudu and digital and other home media now.