Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Death on the Nile’: Film Review

The director returns as Hercule Poirot, following ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ in his second lavish remake of an Agatha Christie mystery, this time co-starring Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer and newcomer Emma Mackey.

One of the most frequent questions asked by critics of Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express remake was “Why?” While the Agatha Christie adaptation approximated the grandeur and opulence of Sidney Lumet’s all-star 1974 original with a classicist’s reverence, the excitement and intrigue of watching a stellar cast dressed in dazzling 1930s finery as a killer steadily thins their ranks was muted by synthetic CG-heavy visuals and the intrusive self-infatuation of Branagh as ingenious Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. Nevertheless, audiences didn’t seem to mind and the film made a whopping $352 million worldwide.

The good news about Branagh’s return to the Christie whodunit library with Death on the Nile is that although it’s no less fabricated in U.K. studios, this tragical mystery tour is more transporting. Positioning glamorously attired characters against the ancient pyramids of Giza, the colossal Ramses statues of Abu Simbel, or on the sweeping decks and in the swanky art deco salons of a luxury paddleboat steamer — and shooting, like the earlier film, in sumptuous 65mm — at the very least, is easy on the eyes.

Death on the Nile

The Bottom Line

More stately than spry.

Release date: Friday, Feb. 11
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie

Rated PG-13,
2 hours 7 minutes

Returning screenwriter Michael Green once again sacrifices much of the playful wit to spend time digging beneath the inscrutable surface of Poirot, starting with a black-and-white World War I prologue in which the young soldier’s powers of deduction save his regiment from near-certain death in a bridge maneuver. “You’re too smart to be a farmer,” Poirot’s captain tells him, before being blown to bits.

That loss, and the sad outcome of his great love of those years, fuel an undertow of melancholy in a figure more often played as aloof and spiky, though invariably likable. The death here of a character of whom he is quite fond adds further to the portrayal of a man of formidable intellect haunted by the crimes he encounters.

Whether you respond to the exposed emotional core behind the famous mustache — we also get the backstory behind that epically architectural facial hair — will depend on how you like your Poirot: brilliant, brittle and wryly detached or humanized by sorrow and, ugh, vulnerability. For some of us who look back with affection on John Guillermin’s lush 1978 screen version, there’s a nagging feeling throughout that Branagh, while hitting the marks of storytelling and design, has drained some of the fun out of it.

Poirot first encounters the three points of the fateful romantic triangle at the heart of this tale in a swinging London speakeasy in 1937. As the exacting epicure fusses over his dessert selection, he observes Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) being tossed around the dancefloor with unbridled passion by her “big, boyish and beautifully simple” fiancé Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). But he also notes a bubble in the chemistry when Jacqui introduces Simon to her school chum Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), a stonking rich heiress who makes a knockout entrance, poured into a silver gown by costumer Paco Delgado that’s like liquid metal.

The featured act at the club is Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo), a guitar-playing singer of raw, bluesy jazz modeled on influential proto-rocker Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose vocals are used throughout. Originally a romance novelist in the Christie novel and 1978 film (played in florid high-camp mode by Angela Lansbury), the reimagined Salome is one of screenwriter Green’s better innovations. The wonderful Okonedo plays her to the hilt, electrifying every scene in which she appears and injecting a flirtatious frisson into her exchanges with Poirot.

Salome, along with her whip-smart niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright), who manages her career, is also on hand six weeks later at Aswan’s ritzy Cataract Hotel, where Simon marries Linnet, having cast aside the significantly less well-heeled Jacqui.

That switch amusingly echoes a recollection of the two women’s schooldays, when Jacqui was downgraded from title role to handmaiden in a production of Antony and Cleopatra after Linnet showed up at rehearsals. The latter’s word-perfect recall of Shakespeare’s lines from the play indicates how accustomed Linnet is to playing the queen in any situation. Her wedding gift to herself of a glittering necklace of outsize rocks — an outrageous bit of Tiffany product placement — would be right at home in any collection of royal jewels.

Mirroring Gadot’s head-turning entrance from earlier, Jacqueline stuns the guests when she crashes the wedding reception in a stunning red and gold gown. Impressive newcomer Mackey (Netflix’s Sex Education) departs from the 1978 model by making Jacqui more of a dangerous femme fatale than an unhinged hysteric, as Mia Farrow played her. Her uninvited presence, and the ornate 22 caliber pistol in her purse, make it a handy coincidence that Poirot happens to be vacationing there, too.

Where the new film pales next to its predecessor is in the assembled party that accompanies the newly-weds on a cruise down the Nile aboard the fabulously appointed S.S. Karnak. The characters could have used more detail; the same goes for the various motives — revenge, money, jealousy — that make all of them suspects as the corpses start piling up. Race and sexuality are also stirred into the mix, though too flimsily to add much.

Christie’s plots, full of byzantine twists and shock reveals, need to unfold like clockwork, with each of the players given a distinct role in the scenario; Green’s script too often feels rushed or vague in what should be key points. In that aspect, the 1978 film, whose screenwriter Anthony Schaffer had proven his skills with murderous puzzles on Sleuth, is superior. Not that the generations unfamiliar with that version will be bothered by unfavorable comparisons.

Among the characters assembled for the wedding and the troubled voyage that follows are Linnet’s maid Louise (Rose Leslie), whose employer played a role in dismantling her marriage prospects; aristocratic doctor Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand, playing it straight), who was once engaged to Linnet; the bride’s “Cousin” Andrew (Ali Fazal), longtime lawyer to the Ridgeway family; Linnet’s eccentric godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), who spurns her wealth and privilege on political grounds; and her nurse and companion of 10 years, Bowers (Dawn French), whose reduced circumstances haven’t dulled her taste for the finer things.

Returning from Branagh’s Orient Express is Tom Bateman as Poirot’s charming right-hand man Bouc, whose marriage plans don’t sit well with his bohemian artist mother Euphemia. That newly created character is played with style and imperious attitude by Annette Bening, though she feels like an extraneous element dropped into the plot rather than an integral part of it.

Green’s script focuses so intently on Poirot and the trio at the center of the mystery that the ensemble lacks cohesion, many of them getting lost amid all the exotic locations — or production designer Jim Clay’s meticulous recreations of them. Only Salome and Rosalie register memorably, with Okonedo and Wright given some of the juiciest scenes. It’s a treat to see French and Saunders reunited, however, and even if no one could measure up to the delicious barbed bantering of Bette Davis and Maggie Smith in the 1978 version, the British comedy duo have a welcome flair with throwaway one-liners.

Of the principals, Branagh tempers his hammier instincts with tender, soulful notes that certainly offer a different point of view on the celebrated detective; Gadot’s Linnet is a soignée goddess who remains sympathetic despite her unchallenged ease and entitlement; Mackey deftly balances ostensibly wounded pride with ruthless resolve; and Hammer’s Simon is suitably dashing though clearly outclassed in intelligence by the two rivals for his love.

The sexual assault allegations against Hammer have caused much nail-biting at Disney, with repeat shifts in the release date; while he was almost invisible in the trailer, there’s no sign of his role being downsized in the final cut.

The film is satisfying enough, though more so as glossy, old-school entertainment than diabolically clever mystery. In gorgeous widescreen compositions, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukas’ camera prowls the elegant interiors and magnificent Egyptian settings with a needling purpose too often absent in plotting that should be tighter, more precision-tooled. Branagh tosses in an unsubtle metaphor for the foul deeds to come by showing a crocodile leaping from the waters to snap its jaws shut on a bird on the banks of the Nile. But this remake, despite its many pleasures, doesn’t operate with quite the same merciless bite.

Full credits

Distributor: Disney
Production companies: Kinberg Genre, Mark Gordon Pictures, Scott Free
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Producers: Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund
Executive producers: Mark Gordon, Simon Kinberg, Matthew Jenkins, James Prichard, Matthew Prichard
Director of photography: Haris Zambarloukas
Production designer: Jim Clay
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Music: Patrick Doyle
Editor: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle
Visual effects supervisor: George Murphy
Casting: Lucy Bevan

Rated PG-13, 2 hours 7 minutes