“Death on the Nile,” director Kenneth Branagh’s follow-up to his 2017 Agatha Christie adaptation “Murder on the Orient Express,” is a top contender for the title of most cursed film in recent memory. Production problems delayed its initial December 2019 release date to 2020, by which time the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, prompting its release to be delayed again…and again…and again. In the meantime, the majority of its lead actors have come under fire for everything from anti-vaccine beliefs to accusations of cannibalism. The movie is finally here, and like its predecessor, it’s both kind of fun, and kind of a mess.
The central mystery to “Death on the Nile” revolves around the 1937 Egypt honeymoon of wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and her new husband Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). A scene at the beginning of the film set in a London jazz club depicts the initial meeting between Linnet and Simon, at the time engaged to Linnet’s friend Jackie (Emma Mackey), who introduced the two in the hopes that Linnet could give Simon a job. Six weeks later, Simon and Linnet are married, and a spiteful Jackie is following them every step of the way. Two evade her, the couple and their guests hop on a cruise on the Nile River, Linnet inviting detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, reprising his role) along because she still feels that something is amiss.
“Death on the Nile” is an old-fashioned murder mystery every step of the way. Every character is a suspect, and Branagh’s direction calls attention to odd snippets of dialogue and suspicious glances. Those who are already familiar with the story, whether from Christie’s novel or the 1978 film version, will know what to expect from the overall mystery, but some changes here and there mean this new adaptation has a few surprises up their sleeve. These changes by and large play into these films attempts to humanize Poirot, a whip-smart detective who has frequently been accused of being cold by those he meets, but who has loved and lost in the past, as both flashbacks and the occasional remark from Poirot reveal. Love is the prevailing theme that runs throughout these stories, and this one in particular. It’s at the heart of the motivations for the crimes that occur over the course of the story; Poirot recognizes this, and his preoccupation with all the characters’ relationships and feelings for each other ultimately helps him piece together the solution to the mystery. Branagh’s often heart-breaking performance helps sell this. His Poirot is lonely, able to recognize love in others but no longer capable of it himself. He imbues the character with so many endearing qualities, like the way he sometimes stumbles over his words and his OCD about numbers (he has a waiter take back one of seven dessert samples he ordered because he needs to have an even number).
But Branagh is the only cast member turning in a really committed performance. The rest of the ensemble includes Tom Bateman, reprising his role as Poirot’s friend Bouc from “Murder on the Orient Express”; Annette Bening as Bouc’s mother Euphemia; and Rose Leslie, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders as the various guests, employees, and relations of Mr. and Mrs. Doyle. No one’s really doing any good acting here, and their interpretations range from high energy camp to failed attempts at playing it straight. Gadot and Hammer are a particularly lethal pair. Several characters throughout the film comment on the way Linnet is simultaneously likable and despicable, but Gadot’s bland performance doesn’t give any indication of either. The faux haughtiness and rage that Hammer imbues Simon with, meanwhile, is laughable at best. They’re a colorful group, sure, but they aren’t really enough to carry the movie, especially when the action is slow to build (so much time is spent on backstory that it’s almost a hour into the film before the first murder is even committed).
“Death on the Nile” is also kind of ugly, with some unnecessary CGI, but the blatantly phony aesthetics call to mind the look of early Hollywood films shot exclusively on soundstages, using obviously fake sets and rear projection to create the illusion of a far-away place. Let’s just say, it’s very obvious that “Death on the Nile” was not shot on location. But for a film where very little feels real except for the protagonist’s emotional turmoil, it works. “Death on the Nile” could have benefited from some tightening up, as it doesn’t move at a swift enough pace to maintain the mystery’s intrigue throughout. But it’s hard not to have a good time with an old-school whodunnit, for all of its good and bad components. At least “Death on the Nile” isn’t cursed in that regard.
“Death on the Nile” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 127 minutes. Rated PG-13.