A film review by Craig J. Koban February 16, 2022

DEATH ON THE NILE jjj

2022, PG-13, 127 mins.

Gal Gadot as Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle  /  Armie Hammer as Simon Doyle  /  Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot  /  Russell Brand as Dr Bessner  /  Tom Bateman as Mr. Bouc  /  Annette Bening as Euphemia  /  Ali Fazal as Andrew Katchadourian  /  Dawn French as Mrs Bowers  /  Rose Leslie as Louise  /  Emma Mackey as Jacqueline de Bellefort  /  Sophie Okonedo as Salome Otterbourne  /  Jennifer Saunders as Marie Van Schuyler  /  Letitia Wright as Rosalie Otterbourne  /  Adam Garcia as Syd

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh

There's a macabre, yet strangely hysterical moment well into DEATH ON THE NILE that pitch perfectly encapsulates the personality of its main protagonist in master sleuth Hercule Poirot.  

It occurs in a makeshift morgue and involves the aggressively obsessive compulsive Belgian detective (played again by the compulsively watchable Branagh, returning in front of and behind the camera for this Agatha Christie whodunnit adaptation) looking over a dead body.  He sees that the victim's feet are sticking out from under the sheet and are not level with one another (you can hardly blame the deceased for this).  He quickly looks at the one foot that's laying almost perpendicular to other, quickly grabs it and then pulls it up so that it's now level and parallel to the other.  Now, this hardly matters to anyone else in the room.  This person is indeed dead.  However, in Poirot's famously fastidious mind he simply can't concentrate on the autopsy and murder investigation to come when things are out of place...even if they're completely nonchalant things that really don't figure into said investigation at all. 

Branagh is certainly not the first actor to play Christie's legendary investigator, but he certainly has put his own unique stamp on this iconic character and makes him such a delightfully weird and eccentric creation distinctively his own.  He stole the show away from his exemplarily assembled cast in his last film outing, 2017's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (which was, in turn, a remake of the 1970s version that, in turn, was adapted from Christie's work), and now the Oscar winner has returned yet again to completely own just about every scene he occupies in DEATH ON THE NILE, the long delayed sequel (originally set to be released as far back as 2019, only to be rescheduled due to production issues and ultimately many times due to our current COVID pandemic).  If one excludes its problematic release history (and the recent thorny history of one of its main stars - more on that in a bit), then DEATH ON THE NILE emerges as a relative equal to its antecedent as a reliably handsome looking and thoroughly involving murder mystery thriller.  It's kind of mechanical and workmanlike, but Branagh sure does make a captivatingly old school and meticulously well oiled production that keeps audiences invested throughout. 

This also might be one of the only films in history to contain an origin story for a character's...mustache.  

DEATH ON THE NILE begins in a wonderfully unexpected and sensationally rendered fashion by whisking audiences back to the past in a World War I set prologue, all shot in exquisite black and white.  During said time we see a younger and de-aged Branagh as his pre-sleuthing Poirot that's helping the allies secure a strategic region of land from enemy forces.  Of course, no military strategist's mind works on the same wavelength as Poirot, but his commander thinks that he's on to something and takes him up on his advice to move in.  Everything goes perfectly to plan, but with one horrific exception: Poirot's commander makes one blunder on the battlefield and accidentally sets off an explosive device, which kills him and brutally wounds Poirot.  When he awakens in a nearby military hospital he's greeted and tended to by the love of his life and fiancé.  Poirot's face took the force of the blast, leaving him badly disfigured.  He rejects his wife-to-be's kindness, but takes her up on her advice to perhaps grow a moustache to cover his scars.  Not only does this whole opening sequence set up an explanation behind Poirot's most notable facial accessory, but it also goes a long way to establishing the tormented psychology of this man, which is steeped in heartache and loss. 

 

 

From here, DEATH ON THE NILE segues to 1930s era Egypt and a local nightclub that introduces us to some of the new key players in this sequel, like the sexy, but poor Jacqueline de Bellfort (Emma Mackey) and her new boyfriend in Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer).  The pair are about to married, that is until Jacqueline introduces her future hubby to her BFF in the disgustingly rich heiress Linett Ridgeway (a well cast Gal Gadot), and from there Simon becomes easily smitten with this - ahem! - Amazonian-like goddess.  Conveniently, Poirot is also at the same nightclub, and because he has an innate ability to smell something foul and off in just about any situation he's able to quickly deduce that Simon and Jacqueline are going on a one-way ticket to splitsville soon.  And speaking of convenient, Poirot later manages to run into one of his old pals in Bouc (Tom Bateman, returning from the last film), who's in the country with his domineering mother,  Euphamia (Annette Benning).  He learns that they're about to celebrate the wedding of - you betcha! - Simon and Linett, which predictably left poor Jacqueline in the dust and dejected.   

Of course, Jacqueline can't leave this couple alone, and she clings to the compulsive belief that Simon still loves her and that he'll dump Linett (and a fortune) to reunite with her.  She even stalks them on their every move, including their honeymoon voyage on the S.S. Karnak, which is currently heading down the Nile with many more of the newlywed's friends, including (checks notes): Linett's godmother, Marie (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse, Bowers (Dawn French); Linett's trusted maid (Rose Leslie); Linett's lawyer, Andrew (Ali Fazal); a renowned blues singer in Salome (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece, Rosalie (Letitia Wright); Linett's former flame in Linus (an unrecognizable Russell Brand); and, yes, Bouc and Euphamia.  Oh, Poirot himself has been invited along as well, and when Jacqueline makes a surprise appearance on the ship Simon and Linett beg him to keep an eye on her.  And, because this is an Agatha Christie whodunnit, someone is mysteriously murdered, with everyone on board seemingly having a motive to kill the victim.  Poirot springs into action, locks down the entire vessel, and proceeds to do what he does best.  "He accuses everyone of murder," explains Bouc to the concerned travelers, leading to Poirot quietly and amusingly retorting, "It’s true, I admit."

There's one element that does not work well in DEATH ON THE NILE in direct comparison to MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green kind of fumble the ball in the first half when it comes to pacing and momentum.  There's obviously a lot of expositional particulars to wade through here (and I wouldn't remove that aforementioned tour de force prologue for any reason), but it takes DEATH ON THE NILE too long to get to the first murder victim (almost an hour), which might lead to some restless filmgoers fidgeting in their chairs.  At least the scenery on display here (both in terms of practical and artificially rendered production design) is pretty exquisite to simply drink in and lovingly gaze at building up to the first dead body popping up.  Like MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, Branagh here once again has shot his film on 65mm (the last one was the first film shot that way in 20 years at the time) and the results gloriously speak for themselves.  There has been ample CG trickery and tinkering employed here yet again to give the stunning vistas along the Nile that dominate the scenery a bit of punch (granted, there are a few times when the seams of the visual effects show and spoil the illusion).  Branagh also gets quite visually creative in manner he films in and around Karnak itself, which becomes a secondary character of interest as the story progresses.  Like the astute filmmaking vet that he is, Branagh is able to maximize the limited real estate on this vessel and somehow gives his film a rich visual tapestry and variety here.

Best of all, you gain such an immediate sensation of the unbridled, almost childlike enthusiasm that Branagh has for this material, the world of Agatha Christie, and, most crucially, the character of Poirot himself.  Even when some turns of the plot fail to intrigue or surprise viewers, we can always reliably count on Branagh's pure performance showmanship as this infectiously nitpicky and offbeat detective to rule the day and drive our interest in the material forward.  Perhaps better than was on display in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, there have been concentrated efforts here to get into the headspace of this character and find his wounded humanity (the prologue, as mentioned multiple times, greatly assists in this regard when it comes to framing what a perpetually lonely figure this man is).  No one should discount the stellar cast built around him, though, and most of them commit to their respective roles (even the underwritten ones) with commendable poise.  I admired the ethnic diversity of the performers this time around, which is most welcoming, and in particular was drawn into Sophie Okonedo as her no-nonsense, tough talking lounge singer that perhaps is the only character here that's plausibly able to stand toe-to-toe in a verbal sparring match with Poirot and almost gets away with it.  "Flirtation," he informs her during one interrogation, "although delightful, will have no effect."  Great moment. 

I liked my time with DEATH ON THE NILE.  Quite a bit, actually, even though I must concede that the identity of the perpetrators here - once revealed - can be reasonably guessed early on by most eagle eye audience members.  On top of its conclusion not packing a sizable shocking wallop, there are other distracting elements contained within, like the obvious elephant in the room in terms of Armie Hammer and the rape accusations that have dogged the actor and have probably ended his career (his pre-allegations involvement here placed Branagh and the studio in a real pickle of a release situation that was further complicated because of COVID).  Hammer is decent in the film, mind you, but doesn't have much sizzling chemistry with his co-star in Gadot, who's good on an individual basis in her role, but simply doesn't seem like a good fit with Hammer (outside of them both being disgustingly attractive people).  His early scenes with Emma Mackey have a surprising level of heated eroticism for a film like this, but watching them in hindsight now (and with Hammer's infamous off-screen troubles) makes for a highly awkward viewing. 

I don't think this all (sorry for the pun) capsizes DEATH ON THE NILE.  There remains a classical, Hollywood of yesteryear formalism on display here from Branagh, not to mention that, yes, his interpretation of Poirot is the performance gift that keeps on giving in these films.  By the time the film ended it did something that I can't say of most franchise properties as of late: It genuinely made me want to see more mystery adventures to come for the inspector.  Those expecting a radically different sequel to MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS may be up for some disappointment here, but Branagh's stalwart efforts here as actor and director proves that not every follow-up entry has to re-invent the genre wheel.  DEATH ON THE NILE is pure genre sequel comfort food, but not in a lazy and condescendingly fan servicing manner.  This follow-up  might not hold a candle to the best of the recent genre bunch in 2019's KNIVES OUT (which came out in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS' wake), but it's still a solidly entertaining piece of popcorn entertainment.  

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