Despite its lavish appearance, Kenneth Branagh’s second take on Agatha Christie barely justifies its existence.
Even if you’re not familiar with Agatha Christie’s vast body of works—she wrote sixty-six detective novels alone—you’ve probably heard of Hercule Poirot. He’s the world’s most famous literary detective, next to Sherlock Holmes. Death on the Nile marks Kenneth Branagh’s second outing directing one of Christie’s Poirot stories and starring as the mustachioed detective himself, following 2017’s tepidly received Murder on the Orient Express. Dogged by COVID-19 delays and scandals surrounding star Armie Hammer, Death on the Nile sometimes feels like it’s scrambling to justify its own existence, and only half-succeeds.
This second Hercule Poirot film opens with a flashback to World War I trench warfare, when Poirot (played by an obviously CGI-smoothed Branagh) was just a scrappy young soldier. It’s clear that the screenplay is trying to explore another dimension to Poirot’s cool and calculated character, but it feels so separate from the rest of the mystery that even viewers unfamiliar with the original novel may be able to tell that it’s a hasty addition. Branagh and his Belfast cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Mamma Mia!) employ a similar black-and-white color palate to the one used in that film, but it reads as flat and washed out here.
The look and pace of the film improve greatly when it shifts back to full color in the present day setting of 1937, where the bulk of the story takes place. Nothing about the style of the film is particularly groundbreaking, but Branagh and his team do an excellent job of using long tracking shots and graceful, sweeping pans to let the audience explore the film’s luxurious settings, from sexy London blues clubs to the pristine Nile riverboat that not everyone will disembark from alive. The movie is also very fond of neatly lining all the character ups in a single row and ominously looking over them one by one, but if any genre film can be forgiven for falling back on such cliches, it’s a cozy mystery like Nile.
Those suspect line-up shots come in handy for the viewer too, since there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and vanishingly little reason for any of these people to actually spend time with each other. Poirot is hired by wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and her new husband Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) to observe and protect their nuptial festivities from Simon’s jealous ex-fiancée, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Sex Education’s Emma Mackey) The newlyweds and their guests try to escape Jacqueline via luxurious riverboat cruise, but in classic Agatha Christie fashion, one of their number is killed shortly after departure.
The pool of possible murderers includes Sophie Okonedo as a jazz star, Leticia Wright as her business-minded niece, Russell Brand as nobleman-turned-doctor, and Annette Bening as a renowned painter. Tom Bateman returns from Murder on the Orient Express to play Poirot’s friend and confident, Bouc, and famed British comedy partners Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders round out the cast with delightful aplomb as a pair of traveling companions. Unfortunately for all these charming stars—especially Mackey, who runs away with every scene she’s in— the story of the film revolves around the union of Gadot and Hammer.
Much has been made of both actors’ artistic abilities and personal lives, but putting all of that aside, Gadot and Hammer simply have no chemistry. Scenes that hinge on the two of them together create a yawning black hole of charisma from which nothing can escape. Whether dancing, dining, or clumsily fondling each other in the shadows of Tutankhamen’s tomb, Gadot and Hammer seem repulsed by each other, stiff and uneasy in each others’ arms. Maybe that’s part of the mystery, but it made understanding certain plot nuances more difficult.
As the film progresses, there’s a noticeable tension between what feels like a corporate mandate to make a swashbuckling Disney adventure movie, almost close to something like National Treasure, and Branagh’s desire to stay true to Christie’s more understated, patient manner of unspooling the mystery. The Disney-fied moments felt cheaply inserted and out of place—think CGI crocodiles and snakes suddenly rearing out up for jump scares—and they detract from the film’s few genuinely chilling moments, such as a dead body being slapped repeatedly against an underwater window by the riverboat’s wheel. A handful of memorably staged shots make their mark, in particular Poirot enjoying a proper tea in front of the Sphynx, but they’re quickly shuffled along to make room for more uninspired, stagey blocking in front of greenscreened locations.
There’s a noticeable tension between what feels like a corporate mandate to make a swashbuckling Disney adventure movie, and Branagh’s desire to stay true to Christie’s more understated, patient manner.
Nothing about the film’s aesthetics, save for maybe the sublime art deco production design by Jim Clay (Children of Men) and the glamorous looks created by costume designers Paco Delgado and Joban Jit Singh, are particularly exciting. The screenplay fares only a little better. Despite being set in the aftermath of one of the most cataclysmic market crashes of all time, the time period is ill-utilized by the script, which barely tries to engage with the era. Since the central mystery is deeply affected by matters of class and status, this is a baffling omission. The Great Depression isn’t mentioned for the first time until eighty minutes into the movie.
Race is similarly elided until the last moment, when it suddenly becomes very important at the bottom of the third act. Okonedo is radiant in her role as the jazz guitarist who catches Poirot’s eye, but the movie seems like it’s employing race-blind casting until she starts rattling off zingers like “If I put a bullet in everyone who was rude to me, the world would be littered with dead white ladies” late in the film. Fleshing out these details would have greatly built up the world of the film and created intrigue by muddling characters’ motives even further, so it really feels like a missed opportunity on Branagh’s part.
Despite the rather boilerplate style of filmmaking on display here, Death on the Nile can’t help but make one curious who the murderer—or murderers—are. There’s a reason Christie’s mysteries have endured to this day; they’re tightly plotted and difficult to unravel. As the body count rises, the film briskly picks up its pace, barreling towards Poirot’s inevitable parlor speech with a series of clever interrogations. But when the big climax finally arrives, there’s not much for the characters to do but hit their poses and listen up. A film made for $90 million should feel like something more than the competently recorded version of a stage play, and Death on the Nile doesn’t rise to the challenge. Like a guest on the Doyles’ ill-fated riverboat, Nile looks pretty and seems game, but will leave you wondering why it bothered stepping out at all.
Death on the Nile opens in theaters February 11th.