The largest, if still backhanded, compliment one could probably give Kenneth Branagh’s lackluster adaptation of Death on the Nile is that it, in a roundabout way, puts a more favorable light on the modest pleasures that came with the actor-director’s previous Agatha Christie outing five years ago. His adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express wasn’t exactly a masterclass in suspense, but there was at least some occasional charms in its aspirations to a more old-school form of lavish, adult-targeted blockbuster — how it cast a collection of finely dressed movie stars as the leading suspects in a classic locked-room mystery. Branagh secured nearly double the budget for this sequel, but you’d never guess it from what’s on screen. Death on the Nile feels tackier in every respect, with a much lower-wattage cast of potential murderers and a partially digitally enhanced exotic locale that’s about as immersive as a screensaver. If a viewer didn’t know any better, they might assume they were seeing the fourth or fifth entry in a dying franchise, not the direct follow-up to a global box-office hit.
After a number of release dates delays because of the pandemic, Death on the Nile arrives just in time for… Valentine’s Day(?) which is actually more fitting than what it might initially seem; especially given the extent to which this film’s particular case from the files of Hercule Poirot revolves around crimes of passion, and with an increased emphasis on the tragic romantic history of the great Belgian detective. Much like the previous star-studded ’70s adaptation, this take is set primarily in 1937, the year Christie’s novel was published. And again, Poirot (Branagh) finds his vacation interrupted by an invitation to ride in luxury, in this case aboard a large steamboat traversing the titular river. And once more, a murder is committed on his watch. The leisurely voyage down the Nile is the last leg on the honeymoon of wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot) and her new husband, the dashing Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). The two have been doggedly pursued across Egypt by Simon’s former fiancee, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), who he coldly left for Linnet six months earlier. Naturally, the rejected lover ends up aboard the boat, joining a passenger list of potential culprits, some from Christie’s novel and some not: Poirot’s playboy friend Bouc (Tom Bateman); Bouc’s painter mother (Annette Bening); a whip-smart showbiz manager (Letitia Wright) with whom Bouc has become enamored; a tough jazz singer (Sophie Okonedo) who sends Poirot’s own wounded heart fluttering; an aristocrat-turned-communist (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse (Dawn French); a lawyer (Ali Fazal); a doctor (Russell Brand); and a maid (Rose Leslie).
As in Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh again fails to establish a clear sense of space, neglecting the layout of his moving set in favor of a lot of restless flourishes. (His various shot selection here is as exaggerated as the some of the accents.) At least in that film, he could exploit the compositional constrictions — and the claustrophobia — of a train’s tight passageways and small compartments. But here, there’s nothing remotely convincing about his presentation of Egypt. Much of Death on the Nile was shot in a giant tank on a soundstage, and it shows: The actors are unflatteringly overlit by the glow of Branagh’s artificial sun, while the ancient wonders are reduced to shoddy illusions — the CGI collection of the pyramids and the partially recreated Temple of Abu Simbel feel almost like some styrofoam recreation. The extravagance of Murder on the Orient Express has been flattened into faux-epic tackiness, justifiable only for how it underscores the material’s implied critique of wealthy excess. It gets to the point where one seriously started to question what the point was for shooting on 65mm if the grand vistas are this green-screen phony?
The even bigger problem with the film, though, is how long it drags its feet to get to the juicer aspects of the material. A full hour passes before the first corpse is uncovered and Poirot gets down to deducing and accusing. “What’s the hold up?,” you might ask. Well first, we have to sift through a flashback to World War I that distractingly, digitally de-ages Branagh to throw some light on the roots of the detective’s hard-earned romantic cynicism, while offering an origin story of his mighty mustache. (As it turns out, he grew it for both practical and sentimental reasons.) After that, Death on the Nile simply takes its sweet time getting to the crime, with scenes of Gadot cosplaying as Cleopatra and intersecting romantic subplots for the sleuth and his young, excitable pal. The real mystery, a tagline might reasonably read, was love.
Branagh goes broad on both sides of the camera, leaning harder still into his conception of Poirot as a mischievous goofball, even as he labors to deepen the caricature through all the floppy romantic-comedy business on the margins of the investigation. Honestly, the movie could use more overacting; the ensemble is short on both heavyweights and hams. (Russell Brand, ineffectually cast against type, delivers what has to be the least animated performance of his career.) Death on the Nile only really staggers to life in its home stretch, when returning screenwriter Michael Green starts stacking Christie’s clues and red herrings and convoluted explanations on top of each other. The climactic accusing-parlor sequence delivers the promised thrill, the reliable rush of puzzle pieces falling into place. But why does everything before it feel so tired, so drained of energy? That’s a mystery that might stump even the great Hercule Poirot. Garishly glossy and told with a drudging pace, Death on the Nile is a flimsy, overripe showcase of ill-matched tacky aesthetics and generally frantic direction.
Death on the Nile is playing in Theaters nationwide