Hercule Poirot Investigates Stylish ‘Death On The Nile’ (Movie Review)

Five years later, Kenneth Branagh dons the ‘stache once again as Inspector Hercule Poirot. Following the 2017 hit, Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh’s Poirot is back for the Egyptian-set sequel, aptly named Death on the Nile. The third filmed adaption of Agatha Christie’s bestselling 1937 novel features a large cast, including Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, along with Branagh, Armie Hammer, Annette Bening, Letitia Wright, and more. Murder on the Orient Express took in an impressive $352 million globally. Hopes are high that this non-comic book studio release entices audiences ready to figure out whodunit. Set (mostly) on a luxury steamer ship, Branagh shot the film in 70mm as he did with Express. Will fancy costumes, wide compositions, and a strong ensemble be enough for another go at an old-fashioned murder mystery?

Seeing this film on the day of nominations for the 94th Oscars, it occurred to me that I have yet to see Kenneth Branagh’s Best Picture contender, Belfast. In truth, not much about that film intrigues me (I’ll get to it, I swear), but I have enjoyed several features directed by the British actor-turned-director. Henry V, Dead Again, and Cinderella are solid. I was also surprised how well Murder on the Orient Express turned out. I just think Branagh, who comes from a theater background, has natural instincts for high drama, which served him well in the Dutch-angled first outing of Asgard’s favorite son, Thor.

Above all else, Branagh’s knack for getting strong performances from his cast is a necessity for any murder mystery that, by design, confines the characters to a few locations. I’m sure Branagh could have done wonders with unknowns too but having big stars like Gal Gadot, who are willing to play dress-up in an older style of filmmaking, pays off. That’s not to say Christie’s story doesn’t hold up but having a vet like Annette Bening makes even a line or two resonate in a way that lesser performers simply could not deliver. This is a finely calibrated balance of actors making interesting choices. You’d be hard-pressed to find a line of dialogue not played for maximum efficiency and, as is Branagh’s talent, dramatic effect.

After a quick black/white opener sees young solider Poirot at a crucial point in WWI’s No Man’s Land without Gadot’s Amazonian Princess to help, we jump forward two decades to find him being his affable self, fussing over tiny treats at a local blues club. Soon a heated, passionate dance introduces us to Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and his fiancé Jacqueline del Bellefort (Sex Education‘s Emma Mackey). There’s a delightful raw energy to this smokey scene that is not at all (ahem) subtle but definitely, well, sexy. Soon enough, the union is not to be, and Doyle instead marries Jacqueline’s old friend slash frenemy Linnet (Gadot), a wealthy heiress who wants for nothing. Six weeks later Poirot, the newlyweds, and a host of others are on a honeymoon excursion in Egypt, where a luxury cruise ship sails down the titular Nile. Naturally, something is afoot, and murder is most foul.

Unlike Express’ relatively quick first act murder, Death On The Nile takes its time. Nearly a murder-less hour goes by as we get to know wealthy socialites and the poor folks who serve them. At 127 minutes, the script by Micheal Green (who also adapted Murder on the Orient Express) is in no hurry to get to the mystery. Mileage may vary depending on how quickly you want to see Poirot do his thing. In the meantime, the costume designers Paco Delgado (Jungle Cruise) and Joan Singh fit Gadot in more than a few stunning gowns. Relax and just enjoy the old Hollywood vibes.

To be fair, while the big death takes some time to occur, Poirot is definitely sleuthing the whole time. He’s getting to know fellow passengers like Rosalie Otterbourne (Letitia Wright), the niece of blues singer Salome (the awesome Sophie Okonedo), whom Poirot is crushing on — Hard (These are all big Branagh-style personalities.) Like her role in Mangrove, Wright excels at playing characters who are seemingly one step ahead, making her a strong foil for the headstrong Poirot.

The rest of the cast are given moments to shine. Gadot’s uber-rich newlywed Linnet is a good change-up from her signature role as Diana in the DC Universe. Gadot gets to play someone petty and a bit out of control while giving in to her movie star persona. Despite the actors’ recent disturbing real-life headlines, Hammer is a strong leading man as his looks and charm fit the 1930s era. Russell Brand plays a sympathetic doctor, who, for the comedian, is more low-key than usual. Another standout: Emma Mackey as the jilted lover Jacqueline. Mackey conveys a ton of emotions with her eyes.

There really isn’t a questionable casting choice in the bunch. Of course, the heart of the film is Branagh’s Inspector Poirot. He’s given just a bit more depth than the first film. I don’t know if I necessarily needed a ton of backstory on the super sleuth, but except for the tedious WWI opening, I think rounding out the character pans out. Branagh has the rapid-fire monologuing down, yet it’s good to see less mannered moments of Poirot too.

The cynical side of me recognizes just how colonial-centric Agatha Christie’s stories are. She really wasn’t mincing words with trains named the “Orient Express.” To Branagh’s credit, the casting is as progressive as could be in 2022. Yes, these are tales mostly about anglophiles who seem to know best, but they’re also effectively killing each other. Branagh’s decision to keep these films set in the eras they originally intended is more a feature than a bug. Do I prefer Rian Johnson’s Knives Out? Absolutely. 

Like Murder on the Orient Express, Death On The Nile was shot in 70mm, but this time there are way more exteriors (along with some iffy CG) delivering a purer cinematic experience. Some of the color grading is a tad too “sunset 24/7,” but seeing this on the big screen impresses nonetheless. With that said, if you’ve seen as many mysteries as I have, the big last act reveal is just OK. Still, if this is a hit, Branagh may have found his Mission: Impossible. Fun fact: there are 33 novels featuring Inspector Hercule Poirot. Heck, with that many to choose from, maybe this could be Branagh’s very own MCU, or should I say — the CCU, the Christie Cinematic Universe. Bring on Miss Marple!


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