Death on the Nile (2022)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Michael Green, based on the Agatha Christie novel.
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Russell Brand, Rose Leslie, Letitia Wright, Sophia Okonedo, Emma Mackey.
127 minutes; 20th Century Studios; PG-13; Theatrical release February 12th, 2022
In 2017, Kenneth Branagh directed an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s perhaps most famous mystery Murder on the Orient Express. It was a minor hit, opening third after fellow new film Daddy’s Home 2 (at #2) and returner third entry in the Thor franchise, of which Branagh directed the first entry in 2011. That film is pretty solid, if not without issues. It was gorgeous with amazing detail on the train, costumes, and other designs (the 4k disc is an example disc, it looks that good). Branagh was fantastic as master detective Hercule Poroit, delving into his eccentricities without turning into annoyance. His love of the material shines through. He set out to make an old-school “loads of famous people drawing-room mystery. prestige film” The script left much to be desired, often on the nose and reducing characters to basics, and adding in an out of place action sequence. But the fine cast and the sheer audacity of the mystery itself elevate said script to a notable film.
Now, Branagh returns both as Poirot and director for the adaptation of one of the other more notable Christie mysteries, 1937’s Death on the Nile. (The other household work, Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None, does not feature Poirot). Death on the Nile carries the same positives and negatives, coming out a little worse for the wear.
The new mystery: Poirot is on vacation in Egypt where he happens across his friend Bouk (Bateman). Bouk invites Poirot to join him and his mother (Bening) to join the large, traveling honeymoon party of rich heiress Linet (Gadot) and Simon (Hammer). Also in the party are a handful of suspects, all with reasons to cause the death of the title; some told directly in the awkward exposition introductions or revealed later. These include Gadot’s socialist godmother and said godmother’s nurse (French and Saunders), her jilted ex-fiance Doctor Windlesham (Brand), his jilted ex Jacqueline (Mackey) okay she’s not part of the group, but following them, a lounge singer (Okonedo) and her niece (Wright), and others.
As it was for Murder, the script by returning Michael Green, is the biggest issue now along with Branaughs over the direction. Characters often tell one another facts and feelings they already know for the sake of the audience, including the speaker telling the listener about the listener. The script essentially yells THIS IS A CLUE, HEY HEY HEY! LOOK! and then a close-up of said notation for those who didn’t get it. There is one particular line/shot that tells the entire solution, and then one must wait an hour for the film to catch up. And it’s so incredibly obvious it makes me straight-up angry. Cut this line and there’d be a much better film, as I and anyone else who catches it (if you don’t, I don’t blame you; we all have different ways of watching and stuff we hone in on. But I felt like the DeCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood pointing meme) could have been more invested.
Branagh’s over direction extends to long takes crawling around the ship, including swirls and some weird angles and stagings for particular scenes. The boat itself is a lush, impeccably designed environment. It, and the effects put on it, are wonderful to look at. The surrounding environs in Egypt, not so much. The composition/green screens often look so awful they look amateur or dredged up from a 2004 video game. The artificiality of Egypt, whether CG, composite, or obvious set makes an odd first hour. Yes, it’s an hour of set-up (including an original story for Poroit’s MUSTACHE that is meant to serve as a background for him but doesn’t amount to much although know why it’s there) until the murder.
Setting up is important in order to care for the hows and whys. But after several repeated character bits and the HEY A CLUE notes, one is left waiting to the breaking point. At least it picks up and gets an urgency in the back half, when the stakes are raised and more bodies begin to pile up. Well, it would have more push if the mystery wasn’t already given away. I’ve not read the book, but apparently, it also takes its sweet time getting moving, even more awkwardly, but holding true to the source isn’t always best from book to film.
The acting is just as uneven. Branaugh is fantastic at directing Branaugh, still the high point of performance. I really like his take on Poirot, to the degree that while I didn’t like this movie, I want to ee more. Saunders and French have all the energy and chemistry they’ve had a pair for decades (I just listened to them in Coraline the other day, still got it). Rose Leslie (as Gadot’s servant) has sparks. Unfortunately, most of the rest come to the point of caricature; whether it be from the sadly always bad Gadot, the hammy Hammer, with Wright, and Okanado being fun if not working through accents that a mix of their own British and southern drawl.
I feel I may be coming off harsh. I felt fine on the movie coming out of the film. But now, looking at the film a few days later and at a distance, it’s soured. It’s chintzy, spends the first hour looking like a cheap screensaver and/or set, with uneven performances, over direction from Branugh, and a glaring simple mystery. There may be enjoyment in the moment for a first watch. I’ve enjoyed Murder on subsequent viewings, but I don’t see a second trip down the Nile for me.