Death on the Nile
Agatha Christie's moustachioed Belgian detective is back on the big screen, but not even the film's star-studded cast can keep it afloat.
February 10, 2022
Some folks just know how to rock a moustache. When Kenneth Branagh (Tenet) stepped into super-sleuth Hercule Poirot's shoes in 2017's Murder on the Orient Express, he clearly considered himself to be one of them. The actor and filmmaker didn't simply play Agatha Christie's famously moustachioed Belgian detective, but also directed the movie — and he didn't miss a chance to showcase his own performance, as well as that hair adorning his top lip. You don't need to be a world-renowned investigator to deduce that Branagh was always going to repeat the same tricks with sequel Death on the Nile, or to pick that stressing the character's distinctive look and accompanying bundle of personality quirks would again take centre stage. But giving Poirot's 'stache its own black-and-white origin story to start the new movie truly is the height of indulgence.
Branagh has previously covered a superhero's beginnings in the initial Thor flick, and also stepped into his own childhood in Belfast, so explaining why Poirot sports his elaborately styled mo — how it came to be, and what it means to him emotionally, too — is just another example of the director doing something he obviously loves. That early hirsute focus sets the tone for Death on the Nile, though, and not as Branagh and returning screenwriter Michael Green (Jungle Cruise) must've intended. Viewers are supposed to get a glimpse at what lies beneath Poirot's smarts and deductive savvy by literally peering beneath his brush-like under-nostril bristles, but all that emerges is routine and formulaic filler. That's the film from its hairy opening to its entire trip through Egypt. At least the moustache looks more convincing than the sets and CGI that are passed off as the pyramids, Abu Simbel and cruising the titular waterway.
It's 1937, three years after the events of Murder on the Orient Express, and Poirot is holidaying in Egypt. While drinking tea with a vantage out over the country's unconvincingly computer-generated towering wonders, he chances across his old pal Bouc (Tom Bateman, Behind Her Eyes) and his mother Euphemia (Annette Bening, Hope Gap), who invite him to join their own trip — which doubles as a honeymoon for just-married heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot, Red Notice) and her new husband Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer, Crisis). Poirot obliges, but he's also surprised by the happy couple. Six weeks earlier, he saw them get introduced by Linnet's now-former friend and Simon's now ex-fiancée Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey, Sex Education). That awkward history isn't easily forgotten by the central duo, either, given that Jackie has followed them with a view to winning Simon back.
Boating down the Nile is initially an escape plan, whisking the newlyweds away from their obsessive stalker. But even as the group — which includes jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo, Wild Rose), her niece and Linnet's school friend Rosalie (Letitia Wright, Black Panther), the bride's own ex-fiancé Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand, Four Kids and It), her lawyer Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal, Victoria and Abdul), her assistant Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie, Game of Thrones), her godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie) and the latter's nurse Mrs Bowers (Dawn French, The Vicar of Dibley) — adjust to the change of schedule, two things were always going to happen. The pouty Jacqueline can't be thwarted that easily, of course. Also, the fact that there'll soon be a murder for Poirot to solve is right there in the movie's moniker.
Something that doesn't occur: evoking much in the way of interest in any of the film's characters, their fates and — seeing that the killer lurks among them — their motivations. This absence of intrigue springs from the same problem that plagued Murder on the Orient Express, because Branagh is still too enamoured with himself as Poirot to give his co-stars anything substantial to do. Almost anyone could've played the S.S. Karnak's passengers, aka a Christie-standard motley crew, as that's how little a splash this cast makes. Gadot does declare that the steamboat has "enough champagne to fill the Nile" like she's in a camp farce, which definitely stands out, but mostly Death on the Nile is an exercise in squandering talent. Bening is woefully underused, and Saunders and French's on-screen reunion is a wasted comic opportunity. It speaks volumes that an on-autopilot Hammer, aka the one star Branagh might now wish faded into the background, is so prominent. It also helps remind viewers that the flick is stale in multiple ways: shot in 2019, it was originally slated to release that December.
Production delays, COVID-19 and just general release-schedule tinkering mean that Death on the Nile now arrives after Belfast, which Branagh made during the pandemic — and the films' close proximity to each other doesn't help this whodunnit. The man behind the two movies has always liked on-screen excess, even if he's not in the centre of the frame, but here all of his visual bombast plays like meaningless gloss. The swooping camerawork doesn't quite sell the extravagant setting as much as it exposes Branagh's style-first approach, and demonstrates a lack of care about whether he's drawing the audience into the story. Cameras circle, the score soars and the feature is fashioned like an epic, but like the cruise's victims, there's no sign of a pulse. The inconsistent pacing, dragging through the setup and then speeding through Poirot's crucial sleuthing like it couldn't be over fast enough, also lands a fatal blow.
It doesn't help that the film's also-lacking predecessor already felt like it was stretching its setup, and jumping on a trend that'd seen plenty of other brilliant masterminds reach screens lately (at the time, Sherlock Holmes adaptations were everywhere, or so it seemed). Now, Death on the Nile sails into a world where Knives Out did the eccentric detective bit far smarter and better, that delightful hit is similarly getting a sequel this year, and the likes of Only Murders in the Building and The Afterparty have been unfurling immensely entertaining murder-mystery antics in streaming queues, too. Mostly, though, Branagh's second Poirot outing suffers from being so infatuated with what Murder on the Orient Express did to box-office success — and what the filmmaker himself did as its star — that it's largely happy to merely repeat the feat. There's more moustache here, and an evident effort to spin the plot's threads around love's tangled webs, but neither was ever going to keep this bogged-down slog afloat.