If anyone thought 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express was the last people would see of Kenneth Branagh (Wild Wild West 1999, Thor 2011) as Hercule Poirot, then, uh, woops? Just like in the 1970s, Death on the Nile follows its train-based predecessor, shifting the action to an Egyptian cruise.
Branagh is back as the Belgian detective, director of the film, and co-producer alongside Ridley Scott (Blade Runner 1982, Gladiator 2000), Judy Hofflund (Stir of Echoes 1999, Panic Room 2002) and Kevin J. Walsh (House of Gucci 2021, The Last Duel 2021). Written by Michael Green (Logan 2017, Blade Runner 2049), the film was distributed by 20th Century Studios to France and South Korea first on February 9th, before reaching the UK and US on the 11th onwards.
Here, Hercule Poirot (Branagh) takes a break in Egypt when he comes across his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman: Da Vinci’s Demons series, Snatched 2017) flying a kite on the Great Pyramid. He invites Poirot to join him on an cruise, where he is introduced to a host of familiar faces. Notably the newlyweds Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer: The Lone Ranger 2013, Call Me By Your Name 2017) and Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot: Wonder Woman 2017, Red Note 2021), and Simon’s jilted ex Jackie de Bellefort (Emma Mackey: Sex Education series, Eiffel 2021).
She is not the only one on the ship with issues, with the ship containing a host of begrudging characters from Linnet’s cousin Andrew (Ali Fazal: Furious 7 2015, Victoria & Abdul 2017) to her own maid Louise (Rose Leslie: Downton Abbey series, Morgan 2016). So, when Linnet is found dead one morning, Poirot has a host of suspects with strong enough motives. But only one of them could have done the deed. The question is who?
The film is based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, published way back in 1937. Though it changes a couple of details. Branagh’s films have been notable for its ‘color-blind casting’, including this one . For example, the previously white socialite Mrs Otterbourne becomes a black Blues Musician (Sophie Okonedo: Hotel Rwanda 2004, Flack series), with lines to account for the character shift that add to the drama.
Other changes are more typical of film adaptations. Some characters get combined into one- socialite-turned-Communist Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders: Shrek 2 2004, Absolutely Fabulous TV series) was originally two different people. The subplot around a missing set of pearls becomes a more streamlined diamond necklace plot that ties into another plot between Bouc, his mother Euphemia (Annette Bening: The American President 1995, American Beauty 1999) and Otterbourne’s niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright: Black Panther 2018).
Regardless, the film still has those Christie hallmarks- Poirot grilling the suspects, a character introducing the rest of the cast at a party, uppercrust people being horrible to each other, and the classic conclusion where Poirot points out the final culprit. The plot and character shifts, the racy dances, and Branagh’s giant coffee strainer of a moustache cannot disguise that.
As such, it still feels rather old-fashioned. Not from the setting and characters- it is supposed to be the 1930s after all. It is just that, after the ITV David Suchet series, the Peter Ustinov films, and the original books, the ground was well trodden-on before Branagh gave it a go. Those hallmarks mentioned above feature in a host of media, including in other quirky detective stories, to the point where they could be called clichés.
For another jab, the camera work can get a little disorienting. Quick cuts and slow, rotating panning shots a-plenty. The nadir is a sequence where Poirot discovers a clue to another murder, done through slow, swirling close-ups that cut between Poirot, the clue, and a brawl with all the suspects. It also gets pretty obvious that the film was not shot on location in Egypt. The CGI Pyramids stand out, and not in a good way.
The acting makes up for the CGI’s slack and then some. Branagh is solid as Poirot, combining the character’s pomposity with the self-effacing (by himself and others) that soften its edge. Benning is also strong as Bouc’s embittered mother. The best of the bunch are likely Okonedo and Wright, who are on-screen delights whose characters see through the others sharply- including Poirot himself.
As for weak links- Russell Brand (Forgetting Sarah Marshall 2008, Get Him to the Greek 2010) would be an easy target, except he actually does okay here. His role is mostly physical as he does not get a lot of lines. Still, his physical and verbal acting is fine. Gadot feels stronger here than in prior films as well. Thus, nitpicky as it is, the weakest may be Saunders as her American accent is quite shaky. Even then, she fulfils her part as the wannabe Red protective of her nurse Mrs Bowers (Dawn French: Murder Most Horrid series, Delicious series) effectively.
For any UK residents- yes, casting the famous British Comedy duo French and Saunders is definitely stunt casting on Branagh’s part. See also Ben Elton (Blackadder TV series) in 1993’s Much Ado about Nothing and Ken Dodd (The Diddymen TV series) in 1996’s Hamlet.
In the end, Death on the Nile is okay. The strengths of the Christie novel come forth, with some good performances and character tweaks for spice. However, it does not beat other Poirot media. The odd camera shots make some scenes confusing, and the Christie playbook can be dusty to others. Nonetheless, while not a must-watch (unless one loves Okonedo and Wright), it is an engaging mystery story. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives this film 3 out of 5 stars.