“Have you ever loved so much, been so possessed by jealousy, that you might kill?”
As a lifelong Agatha Christie fan, the surprise success of 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express was a highlight of that year for me. So much about that film worked: the eclectic cast, those rich cinematic wide shots, the production design, the cinematography, the lush score and Michelle Pfeiffer’s melancholic crooning of the end credits song, which drove home the emotional core of Christie’s famous novel. What I believed was going to be a movie made only for me and a few others was embraced by the public and signified a big-screen resurgence for the works of the greatest mystery authors of all time. Pulling double duty as both director and star, Kenneth Branagh not only put his own spin on Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot, but he also revived a genre that had lay dormant for too long. It was a fantastic start to the Christie resurgence. One can only hope the misfire that is Death on the Nile doesn’t spell the end.
This time around, Hercule Poirot (Branagh) has journeyed to Egypt where he encounters his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) climbing the pyramids. Delighted to see him, Bouc insists that the famous detective accompany him, his mother Euphemia (Annette Bening) and a party of friends on a voyage down the Nile. The cause for celebration is the marriage of the handsome Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) to the wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot). Included in the party are a doctor (Russell Brand), Linnet’s godmother (Jennifer Saunders), a nurse (Dawn French), a maid (Rose Leslie), a blues singer (Sophie Okenodo), her manager/neice (Letitia Wright), a suspicious cousin (Ali Fazal) and Simon’s former flame (Emma Mackey). As the title suggests, a dead body soon appears, disrupting the festivities and thrusting Poirot into one of the most personal cases of his career.
To this day, Agatha Christie remains the greatest mystery writer who ever lived with story after story that set the blueprint for mysteries both practical and psychological. Plenty of them were whodunnits, while some were more on the sinister side. Yet each one challenged the mind and influenced the modern mystery as it’s known today. It’s a shame then that Death on the Nile, adapted from the second most famous Poirot mystery, was actually her weakest. Although he makes his share of character changes, Branagh stays mostly true to Christie’s novel. But that’s a large part of the problem.
While the victim is obvious, the identity of the person who killed them is so apparent, it’s almost insulting. Branagh’s film tries as hard as it can to offer up plenty of suspects with half-baked motives, but it’s not enough to disguise the fact that there’s nothing especially alive or suspenseful here. You get the feeling that at some point Branagh felt unsure about the strength of the mystery and as a result, we’re treated to an abundance of exposition, including an extended backstory about Poirot’s time in the war. But it just doesn’t work. I’m sure there are some who may think the solution isn’t what it is because it’s such an obvious one. In a way though, it’s the obviousness of it that might pull one over on them by making them doubt what they already know.
Since wrapping production in 2019, Death on the Nile has been delayed a number of times for reasons not relevant to the movie, yet all of which are more interesting. Now we’re coming up on Valentine’s Day 2022 and although I don’t recommend this movie at all, I applaud the decision to have it released the weekend before the most romantic day of the year. True to her style, Christie always commented on something through her mysteries; something human and real, which Branagh (to his credit) has always made sure he’s transferred over. While it was the dark prison of grief that dominated in Murder on the Orient Express, here, it’s the consuming nature of love that pulls the strings.
The most powerful of emotions plays a huge part in Death on the Nile, beyond just the romance between the photogenic newlyweds. There’s Euphemia’s almost crippling love for Bouc, Jackie (Mackey’s) obsession with Simon, Louise’s (Leslie) bitterness towards Linnet regarding the man she chased away in order to protect her and even a case of “a love that dare not speak its name” among two of the other passengers. In almost all of these cases, love is shown to be too powerful for everyone and consequently leads to a few undoings. It’s these moments which do admittedly give Death on the Nile a dash of honesty in the midst of the glamor, flash and non-existent mystery.
Every Christie production in existence has been an actor’s dream in a way, allowing many thesps the chance to step outside comfort zones and embrace their theatrical side. Unfortunately, the weakness of Michael Green’s screenplay doesn’t allow much for either great characterization or sparkling dialogue, making this a sink or swim time for the performers. Among those who drown the quickest are Godot and Hammer. The former is luminous, but out of her element as a wealthy socialite. Despite her effort, it’s clear Gadot is not from that world and has sadly little else to do but look stunning. Hammer, who incidentally does come from a background similar to Linnet, fares no better as he overplays every scene with one of the most shaky accents ever to make it onto the screen and a crying fit that will have audiences howling.
While the rest mainly survive the trip unscathed as far as acting is concerned, Death on the Nile does turn out a few standouts to make the long voyage more enjoyable. Branagh’s Poirot remains true to Christie’s vision and the actor finds the right balance of humor and cleverness that made the character one of literature’s most iconic detectives. Bateman shows some maturity and depth in his second round as Bouc, Brand manages some decent dramatic moments and Bening is wonderfully back in Being Julia mode. It’s Okenodo though who is the real showstopper as an American blues singer that’s part sass, part wisdom and all soul. It’s a remarkable turn from the actress, who fills the part with enough intriguing layers to make you mourn that her work isn’t in a better movie.
On the way to the press screening for Death on the Nile, I was speaking with a friend of mine about what makes a good mystery. He started naming off titles from the genre and how he was able to guess the killer in each one. I pointed out to him that the only good mysteries are the ones which you can’t solve; where the reveal is a genuine surprise that makes you instantly replay everything you’ve just seen in your head. The reason I feel this is true is because by now the conventions are so well-worn and well-known to audiences, that the repeated act of throwing out guesses or relying on feelings and impressions in a whodunnit is enough to call out who may or may not be the killer. It’s all well and good, but guesses and feelings simply aren’t deduction and a good mystery will always challenge those through the use of logic and skill. There will simply always be a vast difference between the simple hunch and actual analysis. With Death on the Nile, however, there’s simply no need for either one.