Death on the Nile

On vacation in Egypt, world famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is surprised to run into his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) at the pyramids, and further surprised when, invited to join Bouc’s touring party to Abu Simbel, he finds himself in the company of not only the love triangle he’d initially taken note of on a London club’s dance floor, but that club’s musical entertainment as well.  We will soon learn these seeming coincidences are related and Poirot’s services will be much in demand amidst “Death on the Nile.”

Laura's Review: B-

Director Branagh and his “Murder on the Orient Express” screenwriter Michael Green commit many of the same crimes that afflicted their first stab at adapting Dame Agatha, yet miraculously this second effort is far superior to their first.  Delayed because of the scandal engulfing star Armie Harmer, whose Simon Doyle is introduced with a sweaty, panting dirty dance number with co-star Emma Mackey’s Jacqueline de Bellefort, now that “Nile” is sailing into theaters one wonders if his presence would ever have affected the film’s box office – the role is tailor made for him.

Just like the last time, Green begins with a prologue, although this one actually has a purpose.  A de-aged Branagh is present in a WWI trench when his Captain gets orders that are a death sentence for his company and suggests an alteration based on his observation of bird behavior that saves them.  The sequence also explains the rationale behind Poirot’s extravagant moustache and his lifelong melancholy.  Once again, Branagh and Green’s version of Poirot will be somber, shot through with tragedy throughout, but here the gloom is warranted if unrelenting.

The detective meets up with Bouc at Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel, right in time to join the wedding celebration of wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), last seen being introduced to her now husband Doyle by that man’s then fiancée, old school chum Jacqui, six weeks prior in London.  Bouc does expository duty, giving Poirot and the audience a rundown of the cast.  There is Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), last seen painting in Giza.  The bride’s liberal, wealth hating godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) is accompanied by her nurse Bowers (Dawn French, completing the ‘French and Saunders’ reunion).  Doctor Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand) is the bride’s former beau while her cousin Andrew (Ali Fazal) is the family lawyer.  Employees along for the ride include Linnet’s maid Louise (Rose Leslie) and hired entertainment, electric blues guitarist Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece and sharp-as-a-tack manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright).  Every one of them has a secret and the arrival of Jacqui, stalking in a slinky red and gold gown, will encourage Linnet to confide in Poirot that she doesn’t feel safe with any of them, her wedding gift to herself of a massive Tiffany diamond necklace making her even more of a target.  Poirot agrees to keep an eye out for the lovely young woman, but in less than two days she’ll almost be crushed by a falling boulder before being found in her bed with a bullet hole in her temple.  By the time the S.S. Karnak makes it back to the Old Cataract, four more of its passengers have become corpses.

Once again, the mode of transportation is a star, the paddleboat steamer S.S. Karnak the picture of vintage luxury, one more open to the passing surroundings than the Orient Express.  And while those surroundings are obviously CGI (it is delightful to see Abu Simbel imagined when it was still accessible via the Nile, before it was moved for the building of the Aswan Dam in the 1960’s), they resemble 19th century oil paintings of the Nile.  Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukas, shooting in 65mm, increases the film’s romanticism with reflections of the Karnak, all aglow at night, in the Nile’s waters and its drama with underwater shots of the riverbed being dredged and water level shots of crocodiles snapping up birds on its banks.

Green cannot hide the fact that this mystery is a bit fussy, one too many contrivance, one too many coincidence, Poirot all but drowning in dead bodies, but he does switch out one prop with another, resulting in a more visual clue.  He also adds a mixed race and same sex romance, both of which nonetheless feel organic to the 1937 setting.  As in the first film, some of the characters never really emerge from the background (Russell Brand’s deadly serious doctor, Ali Fazal’s Andrew) and while Dawn French is amusing, her performance feels too modern.  Best among the cast is Sophie Okonedo, who not only rocks hard Sister Rosetta Tharpe-style but whose flirtation with Poirot sparkles when she’s not singing the blues for both.

20th Century Studios releases “Death on the Nile” in theaters on 2/11/22.