‘DEATH ON THE NILE’ Review: A Delectably Dazzling Detective Story

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

DEATH ON THE NILE

Rated PG-13, 2 hours and 7 minutes

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Letitia Wright, Sophie Okonedo, Emma Mackey, Armie Hammer, Gal Gadot, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Rose Leslie, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal

Love, lust, passion, heartbreak and every permutation of the like is the focus of director Kenneth Branagh’s DEATH ON THE NILE. In his second adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, he and returning screenwriter Michael Green build out Detective Hercule Poirot’s backstory (including the auspicious origins of his spectacular mustache) and, in turn, his humanity, while simultaneously delivering a taut, thrilling mystery that keeps you guessing until the surprising reveal. Twists and turns abound in this splendor-filled cinematic page-turner.

Following the events of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, Poirot’s (Bragnah) invited on a cruise on the Nile celebrating the recent marriage of beautiful, wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) to handsome social climber Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). Linnet hires Poirot to look after her former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), who’s been stalking and harassing the lovebirds. Also aboard the couple’s Egyptian honeymoon holiday on the Karnak steamer is Poirot’s good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his uppity mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), smoky blues singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her manager niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright), Linnet’s godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and former nurse maid Bowers (Dawn French), Linnet’s assistant Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie) and trustee Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), and Linnet’s ex-flame Dr. Windlesham (Russell Brand).

The filmmakers wisely take their time setting up all the players on this metaphorical chessboard, letting us get to know each’s desires and darkness before the events commence. They brilliantly layer in physical and psychological stakes where it feels like an expansive, emotional journey. The parched, sundrenched location both complements and nicely juxtaposes the characters’ thirst for wealth, love and recognition. Though all at first are cordial with each other, suspicion and paranoia start to set in once one of them makes it clear they have nefarious motives in mind. But the picture really ramps up in energy and steam once the glamourous heiress turns up dead and everyone is evaluated as a suspect.

Gal Gadot, Emma Mackey and Armie Hammer in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Because the material is immovable to a certain degree (thanks to the strict restrictions of the Christie estate), there’s an expected amount of divine camp the ensemble dives into that keeps the tone buoyant, the drama bubbling and Poirot’s mustache twirling. It provides a good balance between the silly and the serious. Low-key elements of horror are delicately dealt with, whether that be one character’s shockingly gruesome end, or the frightening feelings of grief. Gadot and Hammer are tasked with some fairly hokey, melodramatic dialogue they make gleefully entertaining. Hammer’s role, particularly given his real life rumblings, rings with a sense of irony.

Paco Delgado and JobanJit Singh’s gorgeous costumes augment the ravishing beguilement of wealth, class and luxury. Linens and silks texture the scenery and seductive atmosphere. Haris Zambarloukos’ stunning cinematography amps up the noir overtones. Jim Clay’s impeccable production design in concert with the art direction team’s entrancing stylings work their magic subtly. The glass structured common rooms on the ship, not only refract and reflect the characters’ images (an aesthetic connection and commentary on the duality of human nature), they act as symbolic cages in which the ensemble prowls like predators and, or, become trapped like prey. Branagh colors Green’s text, adding visual motifs of reptiles lurking on land and beneath the murky waters on which the characters keep afloat.

While it comes as no shock Branagh and his collaborators know how to harness the novel power of a good adaptation, having shown capable and adept filmmakers up to the task with their first foray. However, this feature finds greater strength in the razzle-dazzle spectacle. It’s simply slaying.

Grade: B

DEATH ON THE NILE opens on February 11.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.