Death on the Nile review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Kenneth Branagh’s second time taking Poirot to the big screen is a mild success but perhaps that’s because of the low bar. His version of Murder on the Orient Express was exceptionally underwhelming for the rigid performances, questionable pacing, and lack of character. Consider how Branagh appears in Death on the Nile by stepping back into the role of Hercule Poirot. His mustache seems less silly and his character better defined. That being said, it never quite feels like he’s broken into the character, even if you divorce yourself from the classic view of the character being short, fat, bald, and harboring a Belgian accent.
Poirot returns in this picture with more reveals about what’s going on inside his head. We get a backstory of his time during the war which is intriguing but perhaps longer than it should be. He at least feels less awkward in his mannerisms but that could be that Branagh opts not to lean as heavily into the accent, seeming to make it disappear until he pronounces his character’s name. It helps that this story has him reconnecting with his pal Bouc (Tom Bateman), an eccentric man who manages to find fun within Egypt. The two of them are visiting the country for a honeymoon party of the recently wed Simon (Armie Hammer) and Linnet (Gal Gadot), complete with a cruise down the Nile river.
But the cruise is disrupted when Linnet turns up dead. A likely suspect seems to be the conspiring ex of Simon’s, Jackie (Emma Mackey). But it could also be Bouc’s mother, the shrewd painter Euphemia (Annette Bening), in addition to Bouc. It could be the communist godmother of Linnet, Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), or her nurse, Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French). It could be the maid Louise (Rose Leslie) or the jazz singer Salome (Sophie Okonedo). Or, perhaps the one figure who sparks such a drive for murder, Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), Linnet's cousin and lawyer who desperately wanted her to sign some papers during her honeymoon. Anybody is a suspect when money is on the mind and murder is afoot.
I really loved the pacing that Branagh brings to this story, a far cry from how quickly his previous picture dove face-first into the murder without much time to know any of the characters. Here, we get to partake in the vacation and get a good read on all of the characters. We get to play detective right alongside Poirot without feeling as in the dark with the last movie. For some, this may be a hindrance but it feels like such a crucial aspect of establishing the foundation of a great murder mystery that it’s stunning to watch it unfold in this manner. It’s not only an opportune act to establish all the key players but give Poirot the chance to ease into this mystery.
The acting, however, has its hills and valleys. There are hills when watching Sophie Okonedo devour her scenes where she seems both aloof and interested in maybe having a more intimate relationship with Poirot. There are valleys when watching Gal Gadot struggle with enthusiasm and Brand button his yap to maintain some dignity. Hammer is hard to watch because he’s one of the highlights while still being one of the most problematic players in a picture that was held off for so long. Thankfully, there are some great sparks of charisma present from the likes of Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, and Letitia Wright really do shine in such a picture.
Just as with the acting, the direction also feels a bit all over the place. There is some great blocking for the scenes on the ship that use walls and glass to astounding effect, giving off an intriguing vibe throughout. But so many of the establishing shots feel like different movies. We get underwater sequences of vicious sea life but also glorious wide shots of the populace on the river as the sun rises. These shots look great on their own but create a certain inconsistency, almost feeling like they’re shots from other movies.
Death on the Nile is a better Poirot movie than Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, even if it still doesn’t quite feel like an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic character. It has a whole lot of flaws but just enough charm to warrant a pleasing picture, maintaining the mystery with a certain grace. Just don’t be expecting Branagh to be topping David Suchet’s performance anytime soon.