Over four years on from his adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh returns with a follow-up. As with the previous film, this is not the first time Death on the Nile (a 1937 novel) has been adapted for the big screen, with a 1978 entry coming from director John Guillermin, and starring Peter Ustinov, and a cavalcade of stars, such as David Niven, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Mia Farrow.
This new version is almost as stacked with talent, with roles for Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer (possible the last time we’ll be able to write that), Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Annette Bening, Rose Byrne, and Russell Brand. The story begins a 1914-set prologue, with Hercule Poirot (Branagh) on the front line in the first World War. In the skirmish that follows, we see him get facial injuries that, effectively, work as an origin story for his luxuriant moustache.
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Picking up six weeks before the main events of the film, Poirot is in a jazz club, celebrating his positive result in a recent case. Singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) is performing, and Hercule witnesses Jackie de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) introduce her fiancé Simon Doyle (Hammer) to wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gadot). Moving forward to our main story, Poirot is on holiday in Egypt, when he bumps into old friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman) and Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Bening). Invited along to a wedding, the detective is surprised to find that Doyle is marrying not de Bellefort, but Ridgeway-Doyle. With the spurned lover following the newlyweds everywhere they go, the whole party decamps to a cruise ship, in order to head down the Nile in peace.
Once aboard the ship, strange happenings start occurring. An apparent attempt on the young couple’s lives during a short shore stop is followed by Jackie finding her way aboard, and accidently shooting Simon, whilst a resting Linnet retires to her room, only to be found dead the following morning. With the dead Bride being an unpopular, arrogant figure who has previously spurned other members of the party, denied her handmaiden a dowry and marriage, and close to uncovering embezzlement on the part of the man managing her affairs, motives to kill her are widespread, but with many seemingly watertight alibis clouding the picture for the legendary detective.
Remembering both the novel and the previous adaptation of this work, it is clear that this is a slimmed down version. The film is nearly 15 minutes shorter than its predecessor, and there are a number of characters missing, and motives lost, or not expanded on in quite the same way. This is not remotely a problem, though the way the film is paced could lead some to conclude that Branagh has ripped the heart out of the story.
The first murder (yes, there are a few) takes place well into the second hour of the film, and with more to follow, this gives a relatively short section of the film before our detective will gather all the suspects into one room and give us his solution. This is the biggest problem at the centre of the film: it feels rushed, not because of the slimmed-down cast list, but because the structure make it feel like a Poirot is quickly finishing a crossword, rather than solving a major crime – or series of crimes.
This is not helped by the film looking excessively green-screened. At no point do we feel as though the majority of this film was shot anywhere near Egypt. Thus, it feels a bit knocked-out, rather than strived over. It has none of the care evident in its predecessor, such that we don’t feel the same directorial passion for the project. Branagh still appears to enjoy playing the lead role, with attention to detail given to all of the little tics and character quirks that we encountered last time out.
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In fact, all of the cast are excellent. It remains a great shame that Hammer has seemingly flushed his career in the pandemic-ridden years since this was filmed. Mackey plays in the tiny gap between grief and madness, so we can never get a handle on her or her motivations, and Gadot brings the star wattage common to the celebrity-laden 70s Christie adaptations. Russell Brand is almost unrecognisable as a doctor with a noble past he has disavowed, whilst Bateman brings a common decency to his portrayal that makes us really root for his non-involvement in anything nefarious. Finally, Okonedo has a decent chemistry with the lead, one that allows us a small glimpse at the loneliness of Hercule Poirot, a trait he is too scared to challenge, after the pain of loss hinted at earlier in the story.
Death on the Nile is not as strong as its predecessor, and its uneven pacing gives it a feel of something contractually required, rather than strictly necessary. That said, it is a well-told tale, with nice sets, great performances, and a grasp of the terrains geography that took encourage the audience to think about what we are seeing. A slight, but enjoyable work.
Death on the Nile is out now at cinemas.