Murder mysteries are now back in vogue at the cinema, in some part thanks to Kenneth Branagh’s first Poirot reboot, Murder on the Orient Express, but in large part thanks to the huge success of Knives Out three years ago. Branagh’s made it back first with his sequel though, and I found Death on the Nile to be more surprisingly engrossing than expected, though there’s a lot that could have been improved.
A few years after the events of the first story, Poirot (Branagh) holidays in Egypt in the 1930s, bumping into old friend Bouc (Tom Newman) and his stern mother (Annette Bening) who are attending the wedding of glamour couple Linnet (Gal Gadot) and plummy Brit Simon (Armie Hammer). Joining the couple’s party on a cruise down the Nile, grievances and simmering anger result in murder, with the Belgian detective sadly well-placed to find the culprit…
Now, unlike Orient Express, I didn’t know the plotline for this Agatha Christie story, which meant I did enjoy this more for not knowing what would happen. What really surprised me wasn’t the resolution of the story, but how much more morose and bleak this film was compared to the way it appeared it might be.
Branagh directs the screenplay by Michael Green, and both give the older story enough of a kick, with some new embellishments, that its twists and turns are engaging and given an extra boost by a more emotional involvement in proceedings for the detective. The clunkier elements are a mix of Christie’s plot points and some other, more odd decisions that seem contrived, such as an awfully plot-convenient sandstorm during a stop at Abu Simbel, and the frankly bizarre need to have the boat’s crew leave every night despite the river seemingly bordered by empty countryside.
On the plus side, a flashback opening gives Poirot some more character depth, and Branagh films it in monochrome, marking a stark contrast to the glitz and glam of the remainder of the movie (it also serves as an origin story for the still ridiculous moustache, though features some distracting de-ageing effects on Branagh).
Visually though, the film falters big time. Forced by COVID to film entirely in the UK, it’s painfully obvious to see how much greenscreen is employed, and it takes away from the opulent sets, lighting and locations that have clearly had a lot of effort put into their construction. The ship in particular is an excellently laid out, designed and spatially clever location, but it’s demeaned by the poor effects around it. Haris Zambarioukos’ cinematography is all but smeared out by the sheer level of CGI fuzz.
This also has an effect on the sense of tension and atmosphere Branagh concocts, because it all feels less impressive and engrossing when your brain is constantly distracted by fake backgrounds. When real footage intercedes, it paints that woozy heat of Egypt that the computers just can’t achieve.
The Knives Out influence can be seen in the movie’s attempts at humour, but its period setting poses problems in that any hint of racism is glossed over in lieu of the class issues at play. The sumptuous costumes and rich people problems work great to a point, but the cast is just too big and spread too thin for anyone to really stand out or have an impact.
Una Ni Dhonghaile’s editing is swish and sparky, giving the film more urgency when required, but she can only do so much when this unwieldy cast and storyline often require the film to slow down for exposition. Musically, Patrick Doyle’s very forgettable score is overshadowed dramatically by the onscreen 1920s music performed by the on-boat band (who also appear in earlier scenes), which works hard and succeeds in giving the movie a sense of time and place.
Branagh continues to be pretty great as Poirot, dodgy French/Belgian accent notwithstanding. He gets a bit more to do on the acting side of things this time around, and the film is stronger when it focuses in on Poirot the character as opposed to Poirot the plot device. However, the large ensemble here – as with Orient Express – is the film’s own worst enemy, with many of the characters losing out as a result of being part of a larger whole.
On the superstar side of things, Gal Gadot is fairly good in a role that doesn’t demand much at times, but when she’s called on to act she’s capable, marrying Hollywood glamour with her character’s extreme wealth that’s masking insecurities and concerns. I’ll spend little time on the now disgraced Armie Hammer’s appearance here, except to say that his last role is fittingly oleaginous, the plummy and slaggy Simon one of the film’s least sympathetic characters in his arrogance and mistreatment of women. Ironic.
Beyond this main three, there are some standouts and some disappointments, as well as some just plain weird casting. Emma Mackey of Sex Education is excellent as the spurned Jacqueline de Bellefort, almost unnervingly intense and manipulative, and giving Mackey a brilliant springboard from which to launch a global career. It’s actually mad how much better she is than most of the cast when she’s the focus of a given scene – more focus on her would have only improved the film.
If we’re sticking to notable performances, Sophie Okonedo’s enigmatic and sultry singer Salome Otterbourne is memorable in that when she drifts in, the English actress (like many here, playing American instead) gives things a bit of a sexy kick. While more of her might have been appreciated, her backgrounding to the entire plot (as a singer on the boat, utilising clever old microphone effects for added atmosphere) means she makes more of the moments she’s onscreen than not.
Newman’s return as Poirot’s friend provides the film with a bit of effervescence and life, and he feels like a wise addition to the wider ensemble alongside Annette Bening as his overbearing mother Euphemia. Bening’s English accent is spot on, and she imbues the role with steely, elitist classism and snootiness without it being a caricature, while also adding some unexpected laughs.
Now, beyond those two characters it gets a bit out of hand. The aforementioned English actors playing Americans and Americans playing Brits also extends to English actors playing different class levels. Jennifer Saunders’ rich American Marie van Schuyler is disarmingly distracting, only added to with Dawn French appearing as van Schuyler’s confidante and personal assistant. These two are so synonymous with comedy that watching them trying to be dramatic feels very wrong, and is quite distracting sadly.
Russell Brand, meanwhile, not only plays serious, but posh serious as Linnet’s ex partner (and a lord!) Linus Windlesham, a rather convenient doctor onboard. Brand is not at all who you’d expect to play such a character, and as with French and Saunders it’s all a bit variety show odd – you’re expecting it to turn into a comedy sketch, but no: Russell Brand is indeed playing a very serious dramatic role as an aristocratic doctor. It really didn’t work that well, though he’s not on screen that much either.
Finally, Leitita Wright’s Rosalie Otterbourne is little more than a sassy love interest and the film’s moral questioner (if you want someone to pick apart the moral hypocrisy of Poirot and co, watch any of her scenes and you’ll hear all about it); Rose Leslie is miscast and misused as Linnet’s maid Louise Bourget, playing French while English and not really appearing enough at all to make an impact; and Ali Fazal makes little impression as Linnet’s cousin and trustee Andrew, who serves as little more than an arrogant potential suspect.
If you enjoyed Murder on the Orient Express then you’ll like Death on the Nile: simple! But with a sequel to Knives Out on the way, it’ll soon be overshadowed.