Review: ‘Death on the Nile’ May Not be Watertight, but Branagh’s Poirot is Still Fun

Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile may have a curse on it. The film was originally meant to be released in December of 2019, but was pushed back to October 2020. Filming took place from September to December of 2019, just months before the pandemic shut everything down worldwide.

But just at the time that the studio could have decided to release it to streaming instead of holding it, accusations of sexual harassment and other even more insidious behavior surfaced about actor Armie Hammer. In the months that this film has been sitting and waiting to be seen, both Hammer and Letitia Wright (whose anti-vax status has reportedly caused issues for the filming of the Black Panther sequel) have had a very public fall from grace.

Of course, none of that is director Branagh’s fault, as this cast was put together long before any of that behavior surfaced and it’s unfortunate that it’s being viewed only now. The film, adapted by Michael Green from Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel of the same name, is a sequel to Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express. In this new film, we find detective Hercule Poirot in another foreign locale, solving yet another highly convoluted crime.

The film opens in Belgium in 1914 with a black and white prologue (Branagh is seemingly very fond of black and white these days). World War I is raging on and a muddy trench is filled with soldiers, including a young clean-shaven Poirot. His strategic idea helps his unit achieve its mission, but an unexpected explosion leaves him with a scar across his face. His fiancée comes to visit him in the hospital and when he protests that she won’t want him due to his disfigurement, she cheekily suggests that he grow a mustache.

It’s perhaps the most elaborate explanation of a man’s facial hair ever set to film and yet it also establishes the main theme of the film. Branagh and Green have wisely endowed Christie’s story with a more blatant message about the lengths that people are willing to go to in the name of love.

We next see Poirot in London in 1937, where he attends a nightclub at which the beautiful jazz singer Salomé Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) is performing. He watches on as a smitten young couple, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) and Simon Doyle (Hammer) perform a dance so steamy, it almost feels out of place in a Branagh film.

Death on the Nile
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Even those who haven’t read the novel will see exactly where the story is going when Jacqueline’s beautiful, wealthy friend Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) arrives and promises Simon a job as a favor to her old friend. Jacquelin naively suggests that the pair dance and, despite them not having half the chemistry Mackey and Hammer have, it’s clear that spoiled heiress Linnet has found the next thing she wants. The film does an excellent job of establishing a giggly camaraderie between the two women before Linnet lays her eyes on Simon for the first time which makes the pending betrayal seem even more wicked.

We next find Poirot on holiday in Egypt, six weeks later, where he unexpectedly finds his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). Branagh cleverly replaces another character from the novel with Bouc, who appeared in his first Poirot film, to create a through-line between the two movies and give Poirot more of an attachment to the character. The good-natured but indolent wealthy young man is there as part of the wedding party for Linnet and Simon and introduces Poirot to the rest of the guests, in a slightly heavy-handed manner.

Bouc is accompanied by his stern mother, Euphemia (Annette Bening), constantly accompanied by her canvas and easel. The party also includes Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), Linnet’s godmother who has abandoned her fortune in favor of becoming a Communist; her nurse and companion Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French); Linnet’s cousin and lawyer Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal); the soft-spoken doctor Linus Windlesham (an unrecognizable Russell Brand) who is still in love with Linnet, despite her having thrown him over for Simon; and Linnet’s maid Louise (Rose Leslie). Also along are Salomé and her niece and manager, Rosalie (Wright), who was once classmates with Linnet.

Despite tensions within the group, they might be enjoying a nice holiday if it weren’t for Jacqueline following the couple on their honeymoon regardless of where they go, desperate to remain close to her former lover.

There are a few moments in the film that tie Linnet to Cleopatra: a mention that she played her in their school play as a young girl and a more bizarre moment in which she briefly dresses up as the Egyptian queen. They’re another part of the film that has fallen victim to how long it was held before being released, as it now seems laughable due to Gadot’s upcoming film in which she will portray Cleopatra.

The honeymooners decide to try to escape Simon’s jilted fiancée by bringing their whole party aboard the S.S. Karnak, where the champagne flows as they travel down the Nile River. Linnet confesses her worries to Poirot, saying, “When you have money, no one is ever really your friend.” The film takes pains to show how nearly everyone on board has a motive to wish the young heiress harm, but none more so than Jacqueline and Mackey’s intense, glassy-eyed performance makes her into a worthy adversary.

Thus, there’s a little shock when murders begin to occur, though this mystery is hardly as difficult to decipher as that of the previous Poirot film. Branagh maintains good pacing despite the repetition of sequences of Poirot questioning the passengers and indeed, it’s these moments that allow Branagh’s acting to shine.

death on the nile 1
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

While Okonedo also gives a great performance and has fantastic chemistry with Branagh, he gives by far the standout performance of the film. Whether he’s demonstrating Poirot’s eccentricities (in the early club scene, he eats six desserts, insisting on having an even number) or giving into more tender moments remembering his lost love, Branagh is rightfully the star of this show.

Branagh and Green do well at preserving the spirit of Christie’s book, while making changes to help the plot along and make the characters more interesting on-screen. Most notably, the diversity of the cast is woven into the story; rather than colorblind casting that doesn’t acknowledge the actors’ races, Death on the Nile acknowledges the ways in which people of color have a different experience of this world without being too heavy-handed.

For all its enjoyability and star power, it’s far from a perfect film. Despite being partially filmed on location in Morocco, much of the movie has a fake sheen to it with low-quality CGI work. The handful of strong performances cannot make up for the other lackluster performances, though Branagh certainly tries.

Still, there’s a beautiful score by Patrick Doyle and gorgeous, luxurious costumes. It’s a solid cast, problematic members aside, even though many of them don’t have enough to do. Death on the Nile is a solid follow-up to Murder on the Orient Express, even if it’s nothing particularly special, and is proof that Branagh’s Poirot is entertaining enough to continue the franchise if he wants.

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox. 


Death on the Nile

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It’s a solid cast, problematic members aside, even though many of them don’t have enough to do. Death on the Nile is a solid follow-up to Murder on the Orient Express, even if it’s nothing particularly special, and is proof that Branagh’s Poirot is entertaining enough to continue the franchise if he wants. 

6.0/10
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Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.