The main mystery at the heart of Kenneth Branagh’s adaption of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is not who committed the film’s murders but just how seriously we, the audience, are meant to take what we’re watching.
In this much-delayed (by COVID and a cast full of actors who could not escape personal scandal) follow-up to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh again plays the eccentric detective Hercule Poirot. Poirot is again in an exotic land, this time Egypt. And again, circumstances have conspired to isolate him and a group of wealthy and glamorous suspects from the rest of the world. In Murder on the Orient Express, everyone was stuck on a train. Here, they are stuck on a boat. Admittedly, the boat provides a nice view of the pyramids but, eventually, even those testaments to engineering seem to be mocking the people stuck on the boat. The pyramids, after all, have survived for centuries. The same cannot be said for the people who have come to see them. Over the course of the film, there are several murders. (Indeed, Death on the Nile is significantly bloodier than Murder on the Orient Express and, unlike what happened on the Orient Express, the majority of the victims have done nothing to deserve their grisly fate.) Like Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile is based on a novel by Agatha Christie. Branagh changes a few details from Christie’s novel, which is understandable since it’s important to keep the audience guessing. For instance, Bouc (Tom Bateman), who was Poirot’s assistant in Murder on the Orient Express, returns in Branagh’s film version and provides some continuity between the two films. It also provides a nice side-mystery as the audience tries to figure out how Poirot and Bouc could just happen to run into each other in Egypt. Fear not, the film offers up a solution.
As is to be expected, the victims and the suspects are brought to life by a cast of stars and familiar character actors, all of whom act up a storm. Some, of course, do a better job of embracing the melodrama than others. Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot play a glamorous couple and, regardless of how we feel about Hammer as a human being, it works because Gadot and Hammer both look they could have stepped out of a sophisticated, 1930s RKO comedy. (Hammer’s stiff line readings, which are totally appropriate for his character, would actually be a highlight of the film if he wasn’t Armie Hammer.) Russell Brand is oddly subdued as the doctor with the secret while Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders show up to keep all of the British comedy fanatics happy. Sophie Okonedo plays a jazz singer and how you react to her character will depend on how much patience you have for anachronistic musical numbers. (There’s a surprisingly large amount of them.) Annettte Bening plays Bouc’s mother and there’s really not a subtle moment to be found in her performance but again, it works because Death on the Nile is not a particularly subtle film. It’s a film that demands a certain amount of calculated overacting and Bening is enough of a veteran performer to deliver exactly what the film needs.
No, there’s nothing particularly subtle about Death on the Nile but then again, that’s always been a part of Kenneth Branagh’s appeal. Branagh’s endless (and often justified) faith in his own abilities as a director and an actor means that Branagh is willing to do things that others would avoid, whether that means making a 4-hour version of Hamlet or a black-and-white film about growing up in Belfast or, for that matter, a gaudy Agatha Christie adaptation in which he plays the lead detective. Death on the Nile is a celebration of melodrama, beautiful people, and nice clothes. Even the fact that the Egyptian backdrops are obviously phony works to the film’s advantage, giving the proceedings a bit of a retro, Hollywood studio system feel. At its best, Death on the Nile is an homage to old-fashioned camp..
And yet, there are hints that Branagh means for the film to be something more. The films opens with a prologue, one that is not included in Christie’s book or in anything else that Christie wrote about Poirot. The prologue, which is filmed in black-and-white, features Poirot getting terribly wounded during World War I and growing his famous mustache to cover his scars. We also discover that the great love of Poirot’s life was a nurse who died during the war. Later, while solving the murder, Poirot often talks about how he has shut himself away from the world, never wanting to risk falling in love again. There’s even a hint that Poirot has fallen for one of the suspects. Branagh’s a good actor and can obviously pull off Poirot’s inner turmoil but those little serious asides still feel out of place in a film that features Armie Hammer and Russell Brand as romantic rivals. It’s hard not to wonder if Branagh is in on the joke or if he’s seriously attempting to use Poirot as a symbol for an alienated and traumatized society.
One could argue that Poirot uses his mustache to hide from the world in much the same way that many people have spent the past two years using their masks to hide from COVID. Except, of course, Death on the Nile was actually filmed three years ago, before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. The film was first delayed by the theaters shutting down. It was delayed a second time by the scandals surrounded Armie Hammer. (Indeed, this film will probably be the last major studio release to feature Armie Hammer.) It was finally released in February of this year and, within a month, it was on Hulu and HBOMax. It didn’t exactly kill at the box office but I think Death on the Nile will be rediscovered over the years. It’s a minor entry in Branagh’s filmography but it’s still enjoyably silly, regardless of whether that was Branagh’s intention or not.