Death on the Nile, 2022.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Russell Brand, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright, Adam Garcia, Orlando Seale, Michael Rouse, Susannah Fielding, and Rick Warden.
Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot’s Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamer turns into a terrifying search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is tragically cut short.
In Death on the Nile, just about everyone was in love with each other at one point or another. The ones that haven’t are against the concept of love or disapprove of a relative’s relationship. Based on the beloved Agatha Christie novel, Kenneth Branagh (alongside screenwriter Michael Green) realizes that the central twist to the murder mystery is old news even if one is unfamiliar with the plot, wisely opting to home in on dynamics of scorned romance, yearning, social class struggles, while also expanding on the personal life and past of hotshot sleuth Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh also returns to the role in front of the camera after having successfully embodied the detective in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express).
Following a ridiculous origin story for Hercule’s distinct handlebar mustache that doubles as a tense Belgian battle skirmish shot in black-and-white, there is also a glimpse of his love life before becoming a detective. Or rather, it’s the collapse of that love life. It’s a worthy prologue and necessary reminder that despite tremendous intuition, smarts, and deductive capabilities, Hercule is still human (to such a degree that Leticia Wright’s character is given a scene-stealing moment to deconstruct and tear him down).
Flash forward to vacation time in 1937, which turns out to be not much of a vacation at all. Hercule is visiting Egypt and enjoying time with his good pal Bouc (a returning Tom Bateman), who has brought along his socialite mother, Euphemia (Annette Bening). There’s also a honeymoon going on between newlyweds Simon and Linnet Doyle (Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot putting a more sexually charged spin on things). They are routinely being stalked by Simon’s previous partner Jacqueline (Emma Mackey turning over-the-top hysterics into a tragically terrific performance). It’s safe to say that Hercule might not be here for the party, as he finds himself frequently talking Jacqueline out of taking drastic measures while further prying into an entire gathering of families and friends that seems off.
Soon, all embark on the S.S. Karnak traveling along the Nile, where the story locks in on these characters. That’s also the reason why Death on the Nile works as well as it does (the same can also apply for Murder on the Orient Express); it’s not in a rush to get everyone in a confined space to set up a big murder mystery. Instead, the narrative wants to examine its through-line across all of these characters, insignificant or not. When characters matter and have their dynamics affected by being caught up in a web of deceit, it strengthens the story’s core.
These characters include a doctor played by Russell Brand, a childhood friend of Linnet (Leticia Wright, turning in arguably the best performance of the movie) and her jazz singing aunt (Sophie Okonedo), a shady cousin handling Linnet’s business affairs (Ali Fazal), godmothers, and maids. Again, they are typically connected in some fashion through romantic entanglement, even with Hercule finding himself resisting some advances (suggesting a past of regrets). Considering that love is the most powerful motive, the thinking is that any one of these people could be responsible for the murder at the center of the story. As a result, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that some of the acting is boisterous and hammy, although Gal Gadot is the exception, often with flat and awkward line delivery working against the believable physical chemistry she and Armie Hammer share.
As a director, Kenneth Branagh also knows how to spectacle this, allowing characters to explore ancient ruins while shooting everything with a sense of voyage and adventure. The same goes for more intense sequences such as war or foot chases scrambling after the killer striking again. In front of the camera, he wears the flaws of Hercule practically all over his mustache, embracing them while also showing humility and acknowledging mistakes. However, none of that takes away from some of the frustration of watching such a skilled detective struggle through a case that’s not exactly hard to figure out (save for the details of how it’s accomplished). Death on the Nile is kept afloat and breathing thanks to its outstanding ensemble (as highly problematic as some of them are) and attention to characters intersecting through love, wealth, and seeking approval.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com