Death On The Nile
While visiting Egypt, famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is sucked in to yet another mystery when invited to attend the honeymoon party of Simon (Armie Hammer) and Linnet Doyle (Gal Gadot). Jaqueline (Emma Mackey), Simon’s jilted ex-fiancée, seems to be stalking the happy couple, but when blood is spilled on a Nile river cruise it becomes clear that nearly all the guests have some motive to commit murder.
We were all set for a new franchise of Poirot adventures after the excellent Murder On The Orient Express in 2017, but then the studio got sold off, then COVID decided to prove a problem too intractable even for the great detective to solve, and then the less palatable aspects of Armie Hammer’s private life became more public and then Leticia Wright decided to be an anti-vax cretin and suddenly we went from expectant for a sequel to delayed and on to troubled. We’ve been waiting a long time for Branagh’s follow-up and while there is potential for it to be the end of the road for this series, I think, despite all the problems, it has been worth the wait: Branagh does it again, with a stylish, taut and thrilling adaptation of one of the other Agatha Christie tentpoles.
I mean, in a way it is hard to go wrong here. This is A-Tier Christie, with an exciting murder mystery in an interesting time and an interesting place, where the cast of characters are multi-faceted and complex in their motivations. Branagh adds a few things here and there in regards exact personalities and a few alterations as the case unfolds, but Christie has already done most of the work narrative-wise. The execution is still top notch though, with Branagh pacing things out well in what is a rather lengthy adventure, with the titular killing only starting at the half-way point. And of course he’s right there in the middle of it, with another top-class turn as the moustached detective (and the facial hair even gets an origin story here).
This is a more morose Poirot than that we see on the Orient Express. The film opens with a monochrome flashback to his service in World War One that left him scarred in more ways than one, and the following adventure is marked by him losing more people the longer it takes to come to a solution. There’s less in the way of humour, even of the gallows type, in this one, with Poirot frequently left reflecting on his own tragic past and his own lonely future: one scene where Branagh allows the character to emote a bit more openly than usual as he remembers a lost love is very affecting. But Death On The Nile is undoubtedly a bit in the “hard to watch” category, where that isn’t necessarily a criticism, just an observation.
Branagh is, of course, excellent in the lead role, but has assembled another glorious cavalcade of a cast to play around with otherwise, with the script patiently giving them every chance that they need to give us a three dimensional portrait of their characters. Some might dislike seeing Hammer of course, but he’s quite good as Doyle, and plays off very well with both Gadot and Mackey, the latter of which is really smoking up the screen. Tom Bateman as Poirot’s Lothario friend Bouc, Dawn French as a nurse companion, Russell Brand as a Doctor with a hang-up on Linnet and Sophie Okonedo as the sultry blues singer are notable stand-outs, some of them playing decidedly against type (Brand especially is a bit of a revelation here, and might now be in line for some more serious roles). Everyone embodies their parts so fully that Death On The Nile feels like a proper lived-in experience: in combination with the strength of the material, it makes the whole production a difficult one to fault.
This is a film that radiates a classic sense of Hollywood cool, much as Murder On The Orient Express did: how could it not with its exotic Egyptian landscapes, beautiful clothing on beautiful people (the dresses for Gadot and Mackey alone are simply stunning, and I say that as someone who will barely notice such things most of the time) and the jazz/blues soundtrack. Yet it is also eerie: the real Egypt is a place viewed from out a window carrying with it an odd sense of threat in its distant figures, the passengers onboard are ready to turn on each other in a mere instant and even the musicians singing the music have their pasts and their grudges. Branagh is able to really get that sense of threat across, where beyond the cool vistas and classy clientele, there is never a feeling of safety for any of these characters.
Branagh deftly draws a line between the idea of love, and lust, being synonymous with manic, crazed behaviour: while Linnet quotes Anthony And Cleopatra in her seduction of Simon, you’re mind might be drawn more to Romeo & Juliet: “These violent delights have violent ends”. The film opens with a club scene where characters are just a thin layer of material from flat-out making love on the dance floor, and it only gets more sexy as we go on. At several points Branagh depicts local wildlife devouring each other, ahead of a breakdown of civility onboard the steamer that leaves the guests at each others throats: the symbolism isn’t hard to spot, and if Death On The Nile has any major message to impart it may just be that people are capable of eating each other with the motivation only of love and sex.
If there are flaws to what we see unfold it might be primarily in the nature of the mystery’s conclusion. It’s a classic for a reason, but the convoluted way that Christie went about explaining the unexplainable seems a bit silly when put on the screen, especially in a film that really leans into its seriousness whenever it has to. When put inside the confines of a parlour room – a stereotype that really saw its proper genesis with Christie, but a tired cliché is a tired cliché – it all seems particularly odd.
I do not need to tell you that Branagh is a good director, he’s already knocked it out of the park once the year with Belfast. Death On The Nile is a very different production, but still showcases the same quality in cinematography. Branagh has his camera swoop, zoom, pan and twist around in abundance, and if you never get bored during the story being told you never get bored watching it either: in nearly every scene the camera is doing something a little different. It’s a marvel in some ways: a simple scene where Poirot talks to a suspect where the camera is located outside the boat, and pans back and forth between the two as framed in opposing windows, is enlivened and made more dynamic, more engaging and, well, more cool. Branagh knows cool, and knows how to get that concept to pop out of the screen.
Branagh is two for two in 2022. Death On The Nile might have taken a very long time to come out, and in one of its main attractions might leave studios and marketing people feeling a bit awkward. But you can move beyond all of that. What Branagh has done, again, is bring the stories of Christie to life in a manner that is hugely entertaining in its performances and style, engaging in its efforts to replicate the mystery and makes me want to see him do it all over again. I don’t know if he will ever get the chance again – the other Poirot stories lack the popular knowledge of the preceding two – but if he does I will be there, whether it takes one year or five. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Studios).