By Maribeth Thueson
When Kenneth Branagh starred as the brilliant detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (2017), which he also directed, he came in for a good deal of criticism for his character’s extravagant, multi-layered mustache, which was unlike the skinny mustaches sported by previous Poirots. Branagh must have taken the criticism hard, because in his follow-up, Death on the Nile, there is an extended prologue, showing Poirot as a young soldier in WWI, whose sole purpose is to explain the mustache. What does this have to do with murders among a wedding party on the boat Karnak as it goes up the Nile? Nothing!
The prologue, which certainly wasn’t part of the Agatha Christie book the film is based on, sets the tone for the rest of the movie, leaving the viewer with a sort of “oh, this is what they’re doing?” kind of reaction, over and over again. It’s not that Death on the Nile is an entirely bad movie – it’s fairly enjoyable, the costumes are good, and it has a stellar cast. It’s just that it could have been a really good movie, but the directing choices and the screenplay suck all the fun out of it.
First, there are the casting problems. No one could have predicted the allegations against Armie Hammer when the film was made in 2019, but they were part of the reason, along with the pandemic, that the film’s release was delayed several times. There were also anti-vax statements made by Letitia Wright and Russell Brand which garnered some bad press.
But the outside activities of the stars are the least of the film’s problems. Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, two powerhouse comic actors, are forced to play it straight and have little to do, and Brand is so restrained he almost disappears. Gal Gadot is gorgeous as heiress Linnet Ridgeway, on her honeymoon with new husband and possible gold-digger Simon Doyle (Hammer), but unfortunately there’s not much chemistry between them.
There are jarring notes that don’t really fit with a polite Agatha Christie ambience, such as a nightclub scene in which the dancers make such gymnastically sexual contortions that it’ll make you blush.
Then there are the lousy computer graphics. The movie was made mostly in England, with some second-unit shots done in Egypt, but whatever they did to make the scenery look like 1937 instead of the present day backfired, and all of the Egyptian scenery looks fake. The fakery extends to animal predators – a snake, a crocodile, a fish (yes, there’s an allusion to human predators here) – that suddenly snap at prey, moving in sinuously agile ways that would be impossible for the actual animals.
But the worst offense is that Branagh seems to feel that this is The Story of Poirot, so he loads the film with Poirot’s personality quirks – he’s obsessive compulsive, he had a youthful love, but now he’s lonely – forgetting that this is an ensemble film, and Poirot is only there to solve the murders, not to be the star.
There are some bright points, however. Tom Bateman injects much-needed humor and energy as Bouc, a holdover character from Murder on the Orient Express. Annette Bening is great as his crusty mother. And Sophie Okonedo shines as jazz musician Salome Otterbourne, who was a romance novelist in the book. The change is a welcome attempt to add some diversity, and it makes sense within the world of the film. Wright is very good as Rosalie Otterbourne, Salome’s hard-nosed business manager and niece.
As for who done it? When Poirot makes the big reveal at the end with all of the remaining characters locked in the Karnak’s salon, your reaction may well be “meh.” If you enjoyed Murder on the Orient Express, you’re likely to enjoy Death on the Nile, even if it’s not quite as good. It’s just too bad it wasn’t even better.