A wealthy heiress, a mysterious death, and an inescapable boat – Death on the Nile presents a classic whodunit. Based on the renowned Agatha Christie novel of the same name and directed by/starring the incomparable Kenneth Branagh, the film comes after both its 2017 predecessor, Murder on the Orient Express, and the previous, still superior, 1978 adaptation by John Guillermin. A film riddled with endless delays and unfortunate cast controversy, Death on the Nile finally arrives and against all odds, sticks a decent landing. Hoping to strike gold with the sequel, the freshly Oscar-nominated Kenneth Branagh improves on the first which makes for an enthralling, albeit flawed follow-up.
Beginning with two ambitious prologues, the latter of the two is where the story really begins. A London nightclub with raunchier dancing than its 1930s setting would suggest introduces recently engaged couple Simon (Armie Hammer) and Jacqueline (Emma Mackey). That’s until her childhood friend, heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), arrives and steals Simon’s attention. Right from the get-go, there’s not much dimension or believability to Gadot’s distressed and burdened heiress. It’s all rather one-note, even when she’s paranoid about someone trying to kill her for her fortune later on. In regards to her lover, one can’t shake off the feeling of Hammer’s own personal indiscretions (amid abuse allegations) as the two women battle for his affection. The film has a steep mountain to climb this early on, but Branagh tries his best with the cards he’s dealt.
Linnet ultimately elopes with Simon and the newlyweds decide to honeymoon in Egypt. To no one’s surprise, Branagh’s delightful detective Hercule Poirot also finds himself vacationing near the Pyramids of Giza. Poirot reunites with returning character Bouc (Tom Bateman), who invites him to the main couple’s wedding festivities. The cast of future suspects includes the ambitious mother of Bouc (Annette Bening), captivating blues singer Salome (Sophie Okonedo), manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright), assistant Louise (Rose Leslie), and doctor and Linnet’s ex-lover Ludwig (Russell Brand). Despite its size, not many get to actually stand out from this packed cast. Letitia Wright is another actress who was in the clear at the time of casting and has since faced a whirlwind of backlash for her stance on vaccines. Her performance simply does not convey enough to leave an impression, much like the rest of her cohorts.
Screenwriter Michael Green stays pretty true to Agatha Christie’s novel, arguably one of her best is difficult to mess up. There are some changes to the character Salome, along with updated rhetoric to race issues. It’s slightly touched upon when Wright speaks of her friendship with Linnet and the initial discrimination she faced from her. Yet, Linnet’s mindset at some point changes when becoming friends with her. It’s a mix mash of time period logistics and the awareness of the film hitting theaters in 2022. The notion towards inclusivity with race, and the LGBTQ as seen with other characters, is commendable, though it doesn’t always translate clearly. As seen with other recent period pieces, blending modern ideals with those of the past is tricky, and can lead to making “progressive” statements that aren’t really saying anything at all. Death on the Nile toes the line in this case but it doesn’t tarnish the film.
After a slow start, Death on the Nile picks up once everyone embarks on the S.S. Karnak; there’s no turning back. As the body count rises, so does the paranoia for the passengers on board. In trying to further sell this sense of distress and anxiety, which is already effective enough on its own, Branagh makes jarring choices in inserting CGI Egyptian landmarks. It’s so painfully out of place and takes the viewer out of the atmosphere. One can’t get over the fact that every time an evening passes on the boat, the filmmakers present fully CGI animals attacking each other to juxtapose the murders at hand. It’s so wonky and on the nose, it feels like it belongs in a completely different film. Unlike the 1978 adaptation which was actually shot on location, Death on the Nile was mainly shot in Morocco and London; its major backdrop of Egypt is sorely missed. The riverboat is the more exciting setting for this tale, two tiers full of passageways and decadence.
When it’s not visually distracting, there’s plenty to thoroughly enjoy for fans of the genre. From bombastic accusations to hidden clues and everything in between, Death on the Nile practically has everything murder mystery lovers could ask for (except a stronger cast). Love also plays a central theme interwoven throughout its characters, even Poirot derives his passion for the truth to it. Branagh, against some of his better judgments with awkward visuals, provides the film with noteworthy moments as both actor and director that make the final act a pleasure to watch. As Branagh’s Poirot interrogates each possible culprit on board, one can feel the full potential that this story can have on the big screen. The film truly shines when Poirot finally gets all the suspects in one room for a last confrontation, but the moment is fleeting.
Even after some rough sailing, it’s clear Kenneth Branagh loves to play Poirot and does a darn good job doing so. However, his fragmented direction leaves much to be desired. The tragic back story he gives Poirot, as seen in the film’s first prologue, is unprecedented and does at least supply some surprising payoff by the end. It’s obvious that Branagh is trying to revel in Agatha Christie’s work as a fan, though maybe he should have given some decisions more thought, especially with the cast as he can’t steer this boat all by himself. Perhaps Death on the Nile was cursed the more and more it got delayed? Yet, there’s no denying that this classic tale of love, wealth, and jealousy still works, big thanks to the timeless source material. Kenneth Branagh doesn’t deliver the most cunning adaptation, but it’s a noticeable step up from Murder on the Orient Express in many ways. It’s just woefully anchored down by its own burdens.