Suppose I told you that Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile opens with an almost ten-minute extended black & white flashback of how a de-aged Hercule Poirot (Branagh) got his ridiculously iconic mustache. In that case, you’d probably say “WHAT?!?” and then laugh at it. However, his mustache origin story is rather tragic and opens the film on a high note, with a tense action sequence in the middle of No Man’s Land that’s both beautifully shot and choreographed. It’s as if Branagh had always wanted to make a World War I movie and uses Poirot’s backstory as a pretext for him to do what he’d always wanted to do.
Aside from Artemis Fowl, Branagh has never made a bad movie. Even his most “average” films (I’m sorry to report that I’m not the biggest fan of Thor) have an organized structure to them that is fascinating to watch. Moreover, he’s classically trained in the art of acting and filmmaking, in the purest sense of the form, which makes him ideal to adapt Hercule Poirot to the big screen. Frivolous mustache and accent aside (though his Russian accent in Christopher Nolan’s TENET was far worse than this), his 2017 readaptation of Murder on the Orient Express was tons of fun. Branagh reveled in tight dialogue-driven scenes, luscious cinematography, and a stellar supporting cast to level the movie’s predictable script (only if you’ve read Agatha Christie’s novel or have seen previous adaptations of the book), and made it work.
In Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet, whenever our titular character would reveal the crime in front of the suspects, it would always be the episodes’ most cathartic moments. Branagh amplified that catharsis in Murder on the Orient Express and does it even more in Death on the Nile, with the aid of cinematographer Harris Zambarkloukos and editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle. The result is an expertly crafted murder mystery with a terrific visual flair, even though it does take a while to get going, and its supporting cast undermines its quality.
Delayed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of Death on the Nile’s cast members have been embroiled in a slew of controversies, most notably Armie Hammer, who has been accused of sexual abuse by multiple people. As a result, the sequences involving him are particularly uncomfortable to watch, especially during the opening scenes where he seduces Gal Gadot and Emma Mackey’s characters. It also doesn’t help that he and Gadot are both terribly flat in this and have virtually no chemistry whatsoever as the newlywed couple Simon Doyle and Linnet Ridgeway, the movie’s central characters.
Poirot boards the S.S. Karnak cruise ship at the request of Bouc (Tom Bateman) and the Doyles. The two of them believe they are being threatened by Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mackey), Simon’s former fiancée, who keeps stalking them wherever they go. She boards the S.S. Karnak mid-cruise and wreaks havoc for Simon and Linnet.
Shortly after, a murder has occurred. Poirot is thwarted back into solving a highly complex Whodunit, with Simon and Linnet’s cousin, Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), at the center of it all. Of course, everyone becomes a suspect, and you certainly can predict the killer by watching the very first scene. What’s more interesting, however, is seeing how Poirot will accumulate clues and solve the crime rather than the crime (and solution) itself.
But it takes about an hour or so to get going; there’s lots of plotting that foreshadows the murder, in which we have to (repeatedly) see the Doyles fearing for their lives as they escape near-death situations, with a snake, a boulder, a gun, you name it. While it is necessary to establish tension and showcase to the audience that their lives are a stake, it doesn’t need to be repeated all the time, especially after Linnet visits Poirot to tell her that she fears for her life. We understand it. We don’t need to needlessly see it.
But after the murder happens, the movie starts to kick into gear and become classic Poirot. I don’t think Branagh does the best Poirot (Suchet remains undefeated), but his performance is slowly growing on me. There’s a charm to his methodical train of thought and outlook on the world that’s both endearing and immensely hilarious. When he wants to be charming and affectionate, this is where we see Poirot’s more funny and cheerful side. And whenever he’s serious and is in “crime-solving” mode, this is where we see the evident shift between vivacious to analytic and structured. Both phases of Branagh’s Poirot are very entertaining to watch, and a few sequences wrought with emotional power help him solidify his performance.
In particular, Bouc’s interrogation is a masterclass in modern photography and editing. Zambrouklos’s circular camera keeps moving in the same direction. At the same time, Dhonghaíle cuts every time the tension mounts until it reaches its apex and gives the movie its most powerful (and tragic) moment. I’ll admit it caught me off-guard, and the emotional power Branagh resonates straight after is unparalleled. This will then lead to the movie revealing who committed the crime, and in pure Poirot fashion, is sleekly crafted and produces excellent catharsis.
So the moments that work in Death on the Nile work brilliantly. But the drawn-out first act, and two dour performances from its supporting players, who are the film’s point of focus, prevents the film from being a great adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel. It also doesn’t help that its other supporting players, which include Letitia Wright, Sophie Okonedo, Rose Leslie, Russell Brand, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, and Annette Bening, are entirely underdeveloped, even if they give somewhat decent performances (mainly French and Saunders who are delightful).
However, it’s still an admirable effort from Branagh, who continues to showcase his unique filmmaking (and acting) talents, and you can feel the immense admiration he has for the source material. That alone is good enough for me. Suppose Branagh was to make more Hercule Poirot adaptations (or other Agatha Christie properties to balance out all of his Shakespeare adaptations). In that case, I’m sure many (including myself) wouldn’t mind it at all.
Death on the Nile is now playing in theatres everywhere.