By Richard Ades
In the average murder mystery, viewers are challenged to answer the question: “Who is the killer?” In Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile, they’re challenged to answer the question: “Who is Hercule Poirot and how will this affect him?”
Agatha Christie’s ace Belgian detective, played by director Branagh himself, becomes the center of attention long before there’s a murder (about an hour before, actually, since the killing doesn’t take place until halfway through the film). In fact, we meet him before we meet the victim or any of the suspects, thanks to a 1917-style prologue that finds him serving as a young soldier in the trenches of World War I. The point of this digression, apparently, is to allow us to get better acquainted with the future detective and to finally answer the question: “Why does he have such a big mustache?”
As in his previous Christie adaptation, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh’s version of Poirot is clearly the dominant figure here. Whether the actor-director is serving his own ego or simply looking for a new angle on a tale that’s all too familiar, the result is that the murder mystery itself almost seems like an afterthought.
A big-name cast does succeed in creating a bit of intrigue, especially around the love triangle at the plot’s center. It features Gal Gadot as the wealthy Linnet Ridgeway; Emma Mackey as her old friend, Jacqueline; and Armie Hammer as Jacqueline’s financially struggling fiancé, Simon, who soon becomes Linnet’s employee and, shortly after, her husband. This shocking turn of events leaves Jacqueline so distraught that she crashes the new couple’s Egyptian wedding celebration and makes vague threats about what she’s going to do with the ornate pistol she’s so eager to display.
It’s in an attempt to ditch Jacqueline that the newlyweds invite their entire wedding party—including Poirot, who’s there for reasons yet to be revealed—onto a luxurious steamboat for a trip down the Nile. Naturally, the distinguished crowd includes a plethora of possible future suspects, including a doctor who carries a torch for Linnet (Russell Brand); a leftist godmother who disapproves of the newlyweds’ lavish lifestyle (Jennifer Saunders); and an accountant for Linnet’s company who may not have her best interests at heart (Ali Fazal).
Among the others are an artist and her ne’er-do-well son (Annette Bening and Tom Bateman); an American blues singer (Sophie Okonedo) who’s there to entertain the crowd; and Rosalie (Letitia Wright), the singer’s niece and an old schoolmate of the hostess.
Once the murder occurs (finally!), Poirot leaps into action by questioning each member of the party in turn, suggesting possible motives and providing evidence to support his suspicions. This should be the most interesting part of any murder mystery, but it falls flat here because the motives sometimes seem thin and the detective often appears to pull the evidence out of his hat (or, perhaps, out of that huge mustache). More than once, viewers are left to wonder, “How did he know that?”
But the main reason the investigation lags is that, beyond the central love triangle, we seldom get to know anyone well enough to form a clear opinion of them. This is partly because director Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green are so focused on Poirot that they fail to give most other characters a chance to distinguish themselves.
Another problem is that Branagh’s directorial style often becomes a distraction. Between composer Patrick Doyle’s bombastic score and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’s travelogue-style images of CGI-enhanced Egyptian landmarks, it’s all a bit much. Even in the more-intimate investigation scenes, the relentlessly circling camera quickly becomes obtrusive.
Branagh has shown he can direct a film discreetly and appropriately with 2021’s Belfast, which has deservedly garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, among others. Maybe it’s time for him to admit he’s more effective on one side of the camera or the other, but not both.
Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)
Death on the Nile (PG-13) opens Feb. 11 in theaters nationwide.