Director Kenneth Branagh makes good-looking movies, no matter the budget. His Belfast—an exercise in minimalism when compared to his adaptations of Agatha Christie novels—is as good-looking as any movie that came out in 2021. It’s no wonder Belfast was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
His 2017 murder-mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, was a beautiful-looking enterprise, and well-acted, too. His turn as the brilliant Poirot almost made it a worthwhile endeavor.
His sequel, Death on the Nile, is even more lavish visually, with an Egyptian backdrop as a boat sails down the famous river. Unfortunately, Orient Express suffered from feeling a bit predictable due to the conventions of the typical Christie novel—and so does the sequel.
Death on the Nile falls victim to its predictability even more than its predecessor; the formula cries for nothing more than surface, stylish storytelling, and Branagh’s attempt to create something deeper doesn’t succeed. Murder-mysteries are ultimately as good as the mystery at the center, and this one is less perplexing than your average episode of Mike Tyson Mysteries. (It’s a Scooby-Doo spoof that, if you have not seen it, must be seen. Seriously, stop reading this, and go watch it.)
A flashback prologue attempts to give Poirot a little more of that “depth,” going into some of the details hinted at in Express about his love life. It also puts forth an explanation for Poirot’s incredible mustache; for so many reasons, the explanation just doesn’t work.
Express ended with a cliffhanger/connector of Poirot hearing about a murder case in Egypt. That must’ve been a whole other murder, because Poirot starts off this film in Egypt—before the central murder mystery’s wheels are in motion.
Gal Godot shows up as a millionaire on a boat with the usual suspects, including everybody from her new hubby to her ex-boyfriend. The ill-timed casting of Armie Hammer in a major role is unavoidably distracting. He does OK in the movie, but one can’t help but wonder if his recent controversies contributed to an edit that has him off-screen for long stretches.
Russell Brand is shockingly good as the mild-mannered spurned boyfriend/doctor who could be a murderer. Annette Bening is so-so as grouchy Euphemia Bouc, the might-be-a-murderer mother of Bouc (Tom Bateman), the only other returning character from the first movie. (His character’s return was not in the original novel and strains credibility here.) Emma Mackey is OK as the slightly off-kilter spurned girlfriend who most certainly could be the type of person prone to stopping somebody’s pulse permanently. Sophie Okonedo is the best of the bunch as a blues singer who, yes, might have a few murderous bones in her body.
The visuals are awesome, and Branagh’s use of period jazz and blues earns an A+ rating for set design and art direction. It’s because of this, and some decent ensemble work, that you won’t feel like you’ve completely wasted your time watching the movie.
Unfortunately, when Poirot starts putting the pieces together, there’s a good chance the premonition you had about the ending may wind up being correct—in a less-than-enthralling way. A murder mystery where the mystery is lame can’t be recommended, no matter how good the thing looks.
Two Christie novels have now been adapted by Branagh—and that’s enough. He’s got some great films to make in him, and the Christie movies are an exercise in sumptuous mediocrity. The older adaptations with all-star casts and Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney as Poirot had a better idea of how to handle the campy material. It made sense for Branagh to try something different—but it just doesn’t work.
If he should be persuaded into a third go-round as Poirot, the budget should be cut in half, and the proceedings should receive a substantial injection of camp humor. Death on the Nile is a beautiful but joyless affair—leading to an ending your average third-grader could predict.