Branagh seems more preocuppied with his acting than his directing, but Death on the Nile retains a high enough enjoyment floor according to its playful whodunnit-isms and glitzy style.
For Hercule Poirot, the extraordinary (and extraordinarily mustachioed) gentleman detective of Agatha Christie’s cunning imagination, there is no such thing as a detail too minor, a comment too offhand, or a coincidence too absurd. Everything happens for a reason. And in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Christie’s 1937 novel Death on the Nile, those reasons happen to be for love. Jilted lovers, ecstatic newlyweds, and closeted companions all make an appearance. Does it make sense? Not really. Does it matter? Again, not really.
Branagh, who reprises his role as Poirot after his 2017 venture, Murder on the Orient Express, makes his first — clean-shaven — appearance deep in the grimy trenches of World War I. His preternatural observational skills already honed to the quick, he convinces his captain to attack the enemy several hours earlier than planned. This unconventional maneuver secures a victory — at the expense of his face. Thus, the trademark nose neighbor was born. Purely a work of Branagh’s imagination, this prologue is as much an origin story for the mustache as the man. But it does set the stage for who Poirot will become: supremely confident, unerringly analytical, and, due to his love’s untimely death, as emotionally available as the Ramses statues of old.
But it’s the introduction of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey of Sex Education) that really sets the wheels in motion. Or rather, the introduction of her fiancé, Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer, appropriately playing a duplicitous lunk) to her best friend, the eye-wateringly wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Godot). From the moment the two set eyes on each other, in a glitzy London club in the mid-’30s, their sparks could set the room ablaze. Equally electrifying is singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo, clearly having a blast), who lights up the club with the sort of visceral blues that even prim Poirot cannot resist. In fact, their moments of mild flirtation are among the film’s sweetest scenes. Modeled after the influential musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose vocals are used throughout, Salome and her whip-smart niece and business manager, Rosalie (Letitia Wright), provide welcome levity to the film’s increasing paranoia. They also happen to be the only Black characters in a film set in colonial Egypt, an angle that Branagh vaguely acknowledges but mostly skates over.
The next time these characters are all in the same room together, the action has moved from London to Aswan for Simon and Linnet’s wedding. Their nuptial bliss is marred by an understandably vengeful Jacqueline, who tails them around the country with a pretty little .22 in tow. She, for one, doesn’t seem to agree with her ex-bff’s claim that “love is not a game played fair. There are no rules.” For a matter of personal safety, as well as to prolong the party, Linnet moves the festivities to the S.S. Karnak, a posh double-decker steamer where the couple and their 10 closest friends can drink cases of champagne and let the drama blow over.
The ensemble cast includes Poirot’s jovial chum Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his cynical mother Euphemia (Annette Bening); the comedy duo Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French as Linnet’s communist godmother and longtime nurse; and an unrecognizable Russell Brand as the stoical Linus Windlesham, an aristocrat-turned-doctor who once had designs on the bride. Cousin Andrew (Bollywood star Ali Fazal), Linnet’s unscrupulous family lawyer, and Louise (Rose Leslie), her begrudging maid, round out the den of thieves.
As far as whodunnits go, Death on the Nile doesn’t match the irrepressible good fun of something like Knives Out, or the stacked cast of Sidney Lumet’s 1978 remake, which starred Maggie Smith, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Jane Birkin, and Mia Farrow. But it’s still an Agatha Christie classic, so in terms of pure plotting, we’re in more than capable hands. The question is whether Branagh has the gumption — and self-control — to pull it off. At times, he seems more preoccupied with his role as Poirot than his role as director. While Paco Delgado’s costumes are divine (save Linnet’s rather tasteless moment of Cleopatra cosplay), the CGI-rendered pyramids look to be covered in saran wrap, not unlike your grandmother’s couch. He sprinkles in unsubtle symbols – a crocodile picking off cranes, a distant sandstorm — when a less saccharine script would have sufficed. And if the sprawling cast wasn’t enough to keep audiences busy, there’s also a diamond as big as the Ritz, not to mention a damning tube of cadmium red. Through it all, Poirot is grave, exacting, and possibly a little depressed by his own intellect. Heavy is the head that wears the mustache.