Fresh off his Oscar nomination for Best Director, Kenneth Branagh is back in mystery mode, starring as Hercule Poirot and directing his second adaption of Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile. I mostly liked his first effort as Poirot and directing Christie, Murder on the Orient Express, but found the film a little stiff and crammed with too many characters. Nile works out those kinks, the expansive river setting, and the luxury boat that trawls it, provides a literally wider landscape for Branagh to explore, which leads to more interesting visuals and less Dutch angles overall. And though the cast of Nile is still a long list of names, here, working once again from a script by Michael Green, the characters feel better balanced, with even the smaller roles providing full portraits of people who were leading lives before they found themselves amidst Poirot’s latest case.
But there are still some director-star quirks on display. For instance, did you want to know the backstory of Poirot’s famous mustache? Well, you’re going to get it via a black-and-white World War I sequence featuring a de-aged Kenneth Branagh! (He’s going to make a war movie next, isn’t he?) And did you ever wonder what it would look like if Hercule Poirot flirted? You’ll find out! Branagh is obviously having a ball playing Poirot, but he’s also obviously having a ball filming himself playing Poirot. There’s nothing wrong with that, and he definitely knows when to cede the spotlight, but this is a case of “director crush”, except the director has a crush on…himself.
And maybe Gal Gadot. Good god, Branagh lights the SH-T out of Gal Gadot. He knows what he has in her, which is an actor with classic Golden Age Movie Star appeal, and Branagh plays it up to the max, even giving us a preview of what Gadot will look like as Cleopatra. Gadot stars as Linnet Ridgeway, an heiress whose general distrust of fortune hunters turns into full-blown paranoia while on her honeymoon. You see, Linnet usurped her friend’s lover, Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), a penniless charmer. Said friend, Jackie (Emma Mackey, in a scene-stealing performance), is stalking Linnet and Simon on their Nile honeymoon, and Linnet hires Poirot to watch out for them, which turns out to be a prescient move, once Linnet turns up murdered. Once again, Everyone Is A Suspect as Poirot works through the guests on Linnet’s luxury boat getaway.
Nile is a very good-looking film, with a combination of great natural landscape shots and CG-recreations of 1930s Egypt (lensed by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos), fabulous costumes (from Paco Delgado and JobanJit Singh), and lavish sets (headed up by production designer Jim Clay, with set decoration by Abi Groves and florist Amanda Willgrave). But even though it is a relatively short two hours, like Orient Express, Nile feels a little heavy and plodding. It hits all the expected comfort buttons of a cozy mystery, has a couple stand-out performances—Sophie Okonedo is OUTSTANDING as blues singer Salome Otterbourne—and has all these beautiful visuals, but it lacks a certain sprightliness. This is the downside of coming on the other side of Knives Out. Orient Express had no genre competition in terms of lavishly produced murder mysteries with huge ensemble casts, but Nile now has to stack up to Knives Out. And it doesn’t quite.
It just takes itself a little too seriously. Agatha Christie is the titaness of mystery fiction, but perhaps what these adaptations need is a little less reverence and a little more, er, joie de vivre? I realize the central plot depends on someone dying, but also, this is a film set on a yacht full of people wearing fabulous clothes. Yet it’s sort of ponderous and boring? There’s a certain kind of escapism offered by a murder mystery, especially one in an historical setting, but Nile never really reaches the breathlessness of wondering Who Dunnit and Who’s Next. Death on the Nile looks great, is very well acted, and is mostly harmless. But it’s forgettable, too, which is scandalous for a film with THIS MUCH talent in front of and behind the camera.
Death on the Nile is now in theaters.