Travis Leamons // Film Critic
DEATH ON THE NILE
Rated PG-13, 2 hours and 7 minutes
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: 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
DEATH ON THE NILE might as well be called HOW TO SCREW UP A WHODUNIT.
Then again, if whodunits were so easy to make everyone would be making one. Rian Johnson did just that with KNIVES OUT, hitting the target dead center in between Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and its follow-up DEATH ON THE NILE. Make that now-released follow-up on account it was originally scheduled to arrive in December 2019. It’s been on and off schedule so many times Branagh shot and released the critically lauded BELFAST.
Long before Hercule Poirot (Branagh) became a world famous detective, he was a farmer serving in the French army during World War I. In the movie’s prologue, his regiment is to take part in a suicide mission, but Poirot’s keen powers of observation allows for a safer stratagem. The plan works until it blows up in his face, leaving his captain dead and him with facial scars. Convalescing in a hospital, Poirot begins to have second thoughts about marrying his fiancée Katherine (Susan Fielding), feeling his current appearance would make her aghast and embarrassed. Katherine’s solution for Poirot is a simple one: grow a mustache.
We get a flimsy origin tale and follow that with a flimsier nightclub setting nearly thirty years later. Our super sleuth deflects reporters and flashbulbs as he makes his way inside for two of his favorite past times: pastries and people watching. It’s a coincidental set-up to set up a mystery involving a love triangle where the engaged couple changes dance partners in a matter of weeks. We have the recently engaged Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) and her soon-to-be-hubby Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) as well as the wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), who happens to be Bellefort’s best friend. Aside from these three are appearances by blues singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright). They seem like artificial bystanders who somehow become entangled in the mystery as Salome performs at the wedding reception when all of them reunite in six weeks as Poirot is vacationing in Egypt.
Long story condensed, Poirot ends up on a wedding cruise with newlyweds Linnet and Simon, and a handful of guests – all of whom are expediently introduced as if someone were looking over their job classifications and relations to the bride and groom. Then there’s the Jacqueline, crashing the party still pining for Simon. Shortly after her unwelcomed arrival, Linnet is found murdered, and now it’s time for Poirot and his whirling dervish of a mustache to reveal who did it.
DEATH ON THE NILE is a star-studded mystery where the biggest puzzler isn’t weeding out the killer but finding good performances. Now Branagh and his longtime DP, Haris Zambarloukos, give the movie the sheen of classic cinema – a time when movie stars towered as big as the famous sign in the Hollywood hills. Hammer and Gadot’s looks are convincing. Their charisma, not so much. Tom Bateman as Poirot’s trusty friend Bouc is serviceable, while his mother (played by Annette Bening) flounders and needs a lifejacket while standing topside on the cruise liner. The ones who are even remotely interesting are the Otterbournes, particularly Okonedo. Her interplay with Branagh is by far the biggest highlight as their verbal dalliances nearly make Poirot’s famed whiskers stand on end. Even Branagh’s Poirot, as hammy as he can be with his accent, is all right.
It takes a good hour before the real fun and games begin. Then it turns into a pacing quagmire. Branagh positions the pieces as if he were getting ready to play billiards, then he lets it rip. The closer Poirot gets to identifying killer, the greater the collateral damage. When a death in the later stages occurs, our sophisticated sleuth loses his senses. The fun is lost at sea and all that remains is a game to be finished.
DEATH ON THE NILE improves on some things Branagh did with MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. But in the wake of KNIVES OUT – where Johnson did his homework in identifying what worked best in the previous big-screen treatments, while also satiating his brain and his funny bone with THE LAST OF SHEILA, MURDER BY DEATH, and CLUE – this whodunit is left to rest on cruise control.