Death on the Nile
Murder mysteries with an all-star cast were pretty big in the 1970s. Whodunits featuring a detective investigating a collection of suspicious folks played by famous people used to be popular. Now they are relatively rare. In 2017, Kenneth Branagh directed/starred alongside Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman and Willem Dafoe in an okay adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green are now giving it a second go, adapting Christie’s Death on the Nile, wherein Branagh reprises his role as brilliant Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, investigating another strong cast of possible murderers. The actors are impressive and the mystery is compelling but, like with his first effort in the series, Branagh hasn’t figured out how to maximize the drama and suspense so that things don’t drag. It simmers too many times when it should be boiling over. Regardless, it is generally entertaining, even if it’s not particularly memorable.
The fun in these types of stories is less in the who and more in discovering the how and the why, so I won’t linger too much on plot details. As this story begins, Poirot is on vacation when he runs into his friend Bouc. Bouc is acquaintances with a wealthy newlywed and he brings Poirot along as the couple celebrates their honeymoon with their friends. After establishing relationships and hinting at theoretical motives, they end up on a boat on the Nile River, where someone is murdered.
The screenplay takes more care this time to humanize Poirot. He does not do what he does to be loved or to be a hero. He does it because he is great at it and because it allows him to ignore the pain in his past. There are moments when he is interviewing someone and he just can’t stop himself from pulling at threads, despite knowing those threads have nothing to do with the case. Try to hide something from him and it makes him want to expose it. Life is a mystery. It is Poirot’s fate to solve it. Branagh is good in the role; amused and curious, a little odd, yet always exuding confidence and authority. It seems like he wants to be kind, but can’t afford it. He is an engaging anchor for this plot.
Then there are the suspects. Death on the Nile (two hours without the end credits) doesn’t give anyone a lot of depth to work with. They each have a few traits because, after all, this is a mystery and Poirot needs to have secrets to uncover. However, the actors lean into those few traits with gusto. There is Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, as the glamorous Linnet. Armie Hammer is Simon, her lucky new husband. Tom Bateman returns as Bouc, with Annette Bening showing up as his overly protective mother. Sophie Okonedo is a popular jazz singer, with Letitia Wright as her business-minded niece. Then there’s Emma Mackey as Simon’s spurned former lover, Rose Leslie as Linnet’s put-upon assistant, Russel Brand as a doctor in love with Linnet, Ali Fazal as Linnet’s business manager and Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French as Linnet’s godmother and her nurse.
I list these names because these productions are mostly based around introducing a bunch of famous faces and letting them have fun with interrogations and revelations. The highlights here are Gadot, Bening and Okonedo. Gadot plays this seriously, as though it’s a movie about a newly married couple trying to start a new life together. It is a huge credit to the casting that I cannot imagine anyone who looks the part better than she does. Bening is the mother who instantly dislikes everyone in her son’s life. She has some good lines and never tries to get the audience’s sympathy. Okonedo probably gets the best dialogue, as she actually goes toe-to-toe with Poirot in a duel of respect.
The performances, the location, the mystery and the big moment when the detective gathers all of the suspects in one room and explains everything are satisfying. Death on the Nile is enjoyable enough for a recommendation. But there is still something Branagh has not quite gotten right with Poirot. It may be the pacing or it may be that he doesn’t seem to know when it is time to lighten the mood a bit. Either way, it is not as much fun to see this genius solve a mystery as it should be.
3¼ out of 5
Cast: Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot
Gal Gadot as Linnet Ridgeway
Armie Hammer as Simon Doyle
Emma Mackey as Jacqueline de Bellefort
Tom Bateman as Bouc
Annette Bening as Euphemia Bouc
Letitia Wright as Rosalie Otterbourne
Sophie Okonedo as Salome Otterbourne
Rose Leslie as Louise Bourget
Russell Brand as Windlesham
Dawn French as Bowers
Jennifer Saunders as Marie Van Schuyler
Ali Fazal as Andrew Katchadourian
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay by Michael Green