Poirot and his mustache tackle another mystery

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, right) joins the wedding party of Simon and Linnet (Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot) in a scene from Death on the Nile. (Photos courtesy of 20th Century Studioes/Walt Disney Studios)

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.

Gal Gadot as Linnet

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?”

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

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.

A portrait of the jurist as a young woman

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Felicity Jones (center) as a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex

By Richard Ades

After seeing last year’s documentary RBG, it was easy to understand how Ruth Bader Ginsburg nodded off during President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address. The film depicts the Supreme Court justice as a lifelong workaholic who treats sleep as a low priority. Though she admitted that wine played a role in her televised catnap, it could also be that the long hours simply caught up with her.

For an understanding of just why Ginsburg is such a sleep-deprived dynamo, see the new biopic On the Basis of Sex. It suggests that late hours became a habit when she was a young law student.

As depicted in the film, Ruth (Felicity Jones) and husband Marty (Armie Hammer) are attending Harvard Law School in the 1950s when Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer. Rather than allow him to fall behind in his studies, Ruth starts attending Marty’s classes as well as her own. Add the motherhood duties required by their baby daughter, and sleep becomes a luxury.

Despite a dire prognosis, Marty somehow survives his cancer. So does the movie, though it’s touch and go for a while. Director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman take advantage of Marty’s illness to depict Ruth as a loving, selfless wife and mother. Doubtless she was, but their syrupy, sentimental approach reduces her to little more than a generic romantic heroine rather than the determined woman who would one day become a groundbreaking supporter of sexual equality.

Ginsburg’s feminist sentiments do come out in scenes that show the challenges she faces as one of Harvard’s earliest female law students. In an incident that would be unbelievable if it weren’t verified by the documentary, the dean (Sam Waterston) asks the female students why they’re taking up spots that should have gone to men. Subtly mocking his patriarchal mindset, Ginsburg responds that she wants to understand her husband’s field so she can be a more “patient” wife.

Despite such scenes, the flick doesn’t really hit its stride until Marty, as an established tax lawyer, introduces Ruth, as a law professor, to the case from which the title is derived. A Colorado man (Chris Mulkey) wants to claim a tax deduction to help pay for nursing care for his invalid mother, but the law says the deduction is available to women but not to single men like himself.

Recognizing a chance to start questioning the myriad of laws that discriminate on the basis of gender, Ruth is eager to take on the case. The struggle that ensues, exacerbated by the realization that she’s going up against decades of precedents that support traditional gender roles, is historically fascinating.

Speaking of gender roles, actor Hammer offers a sympathetic depiction of Marty Ginsburg as a man ahead of his time when it comes to his support and appreciation of his talented wife. As that wife, Jones is hampered by a Brooklyn accent that comes and goes and by the aforementioned scenes that are more sentimental than realistic. But once Jones’s Ginsburg starts taking on legal impediments to gender equality, she becomes a convincing combination of trepidation and determination.

RBG remains the definitive portrait of a judicial superhero, but On the Basis of Sex complements it by providing an inspirational origin story.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

On the Basis of Sex (PG-13) opens Jan. 10 or 11 at theaters nationwide.