Movie Review: Death on the Nile

Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Sherlock Holmes was reinvented by Guy Ritchie to become an action hero, Watson sold separately. Transformed into a charming ruffian and genius, arguably every role Robert Downey Jr. has ever played, he shed the deerstalker, pipe and magnifying glass to go action-ready instead of strictly cerebral in a new Sherlock Holmes. The green screen London and action-packed reinvention was fast-paced and fresh enough to warrant a promising yet ultimately middling sequel in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

Similarly, Kenneth Branagh has tried to do the same for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective renowned for his “little gray cells” who has a knack for solving crimes, even while on vacation. Steeped in many TV and film adaptations, the character has a rich history of interpretations but none have dared turn him into a valiant hero armed with a moustache to rival Magnum PI… until now.

As star, producer and director, Death on the Nile is undoubtedly Kenneth Branagh’s baby, penned by Murder on the Orient Express screenwriter Michael Green and based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name. Branagh is a multi-facted filmmaking force, having recently been lauded by the Academy for the black-and-white autobiographical drama Belfast with regular appearances in Christopher Nolan films. Versatile enough to work in front or behind camera or curtain, he’s racked up an impressive list of film and stage credits.

Murder on the Orient Express was a quick-paced, stellar and sleek murder mystery that leveraged Christie’s classic tale for maximum visual appeal and box office draw. While over-reliant on visual effects to transplant its train-based story and irreverent in its re-engineering of the world famous Belgian detective, it was entertaining, compelling and modern enough to satisfy most audiences. In keeping up with the first film, this makes Death on the Nile a rinse-and-repeat, taking the same smooth skin and applying it to the sequel.

Reprising his role as Hercule Poirot is Branagh, who has a firm grasp on the accent and enough conviction to sell the character, even if somewhat obscured by a tougher battle-ready shell and a fun-sized moustache. Gal Gadot could play Cleopatra in a heartbeat, an excellent casting decision for Death on the Nile’s wealthy heiress. Annette Bening adds her dramatic heft to the ensemble as Euphemia Bouc in a matriarchal role much like Dame Judi Dench did in Murder on the Orient Express. While the accused and reason for the film’s subsequent delay, Armie Hammer, substitutes for Johnny Depp as the tarnished star turned problematic rogue.

death on the nile movie

“Who wants to be my queen… my goddess.”

When it comes to the expansive supporting cast, Green has condensed a few characters in an attempt to simplify a rather muddled murder mystery. Sophie Okonedo dons the headdress of a night club singer in Salome Otterbourne, Russell Brand takes on an unusually controlled and serious performance as Windlesham and Rose Leslie drops her tough Game of Thrones exterior to go French as Louise Bourget. Speaking of… French and Saunders comedy pairing, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, reunite to play opposite one another again.

Death on the Nile has a handsome cast matched by its exquisite, almost breathtaking visuals of Egypt and its iconic monuments. Bowing to hints of Poirot’s obsessive compulsive disorder, there’s an attempt for symmetry in the cinematography. Constantly moving to create a sense of space almost in response to a fear of becoming dramatically stagnant, Death on the Nile is always on the move. Murder on the Orient Express was so far-removed from the authenticity of David Suchet’s version of Poirot that it could have been in the same universe as Snowpiercer. The sequel is still surreal and aiming for the visual austere of being a moving painting, but is somehow more grounded in reality.

This shows Branagh took some criticism from Murder on the Orient Express to heart. Another example is his attempt to justify Poirot’s circus conductor moustache. Effectively giving the moustache its own origin story, Branagh takes some of his Belfast inspiration into opening Death on the Nile with an elegant black-and-white war drama thriller to add storytelling depth. Showing the inspiration and need for his big moustache (that seems to have its own moustache), this also makes him 30 years younger than Agatha Christie’s fictional version of Poirot.

Moving at a clipped pace, there’s not much time for dramatic suspense or nuance, leaving the film eye-popping yet rather cold and distant. While easier to follow with simplified characters and fewer subplots, the expansive cast results in a thin screenplay where there’s just not enough time to linger. Losing some of Poirot’s old world charm and sophistication in the process, Death on the Nile seems short of time in spite of a nearly 2 hour run time. Preoccupied with murder in an investigative race to find the killer, there’s actually very little time for any real acting.

This lack of emotional connection with the characters and performances stifles Death on the Nile, making it visually-compelling and dependent on twists-and-turns but otherwise dead in the water. While fast-paced, star-studded and visually-appealing as an exquisite moving painting to entertain Christie’s epic murder mystery, it sacrifices a great deal of detail, nuance and wit in the action-packed reinvention.

It’s as if Branagh is emulating Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes reboot with Robert Downey Jr. but forgetting to appease its fan base or find the fun for new audiences. While it starts with aplomb, this moody murder mystery doesn’t have any cards up its sleeve by the time the suspect group has assembled, ending with a visually nuanced yet rather contrived romantic ellipsis.

The bottom line: Distant

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