A few interesting things happened on the way to Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile being released in theaters. Originally scheduled for October 23, 2020, the pandemic pushed the release to September 17, 2021. But then, lead actor Armie Hammer was embroiled in a very strange sex scandal, pushing the film to its current release date. On the positive side, Branagh went on to direct a very personal film, Belfast, which is nominated for seven Oscars, including two for Branagh himself.
All of that weighs heavily on the film, a quasi-sequel to 2017’s dreadful Murder on the Orient Express, in which Branagh put his first spin on Agatha Christie’s iconic detective, Hercule Poirot. Poirot is back, this time aboard a pleasure cruise on the Nile River in Egypt, where Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Hammer) are celebrating their recent wedding, an affair for which no expense has been spared.
Per usual with Christie stories, the film is full of characters/suspects, including Doyle’s jilted lover, Jacqueline (Emma Mackey); Poirot’s friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his mother, Euphemia (Annette Bening); Linnet’s old flame, Windlesham (Russell Brand), who happens to be a doctor; singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece, Rosalie (Letitia Wright); and more.
Death is contagious aboard the boat, as more than one character meets his or her demise. However, as was the case with Orient Express, a feeling of mystery is nonexistent in the film, which is very strange since that’s the point of the entire story. There are many reasons for this failure, but chief among them is that it takes far too long for the main part of the film to start.
Branagh and writer Michael Green set up an elaborate story in which Poirot is not just coincidentally on the boat, but an actual acquaintance of multiple people on board, including the just-married couple. That twist changes the dynamics of the various interactions he has with everybody on board, and not in a good way. When bodies start piling up, Poirot’s unique observation skills feel less than compelling.
Green, back again after writing Orient Express, was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing 2017’s Logan, but he’s also been responsible for such dreck as Green Lantern, The Call of the Wild, and Jungle Cruise, which is as good an indicator of his talent as anything else. The only interesting wrinkle he adds to the story is a tragic backstory for Poirot, but that tidbit winds up being apropos of nothing.
The cast of the film do their level best with what they’re given. Branagh hams it up with the French-Belgian accent, but it works for the character. Gadot is as luminous and charming as ever, but ultimately has little to do. Hammer always has a distinct smarminess to him, but that aspect plays much differently now. The best actor in the bunch, Bateman, is probably the least known, as he is a regular on British TV but has few movies to his credit.
Branagh proved himself a great filmmaker with Belfast, but almost none of that ability is on display in Death on the Nile. Christie was one of the great mystery writers of all time, but it’s time for Branagh to give up the ghost of trying to revive her stories, especially when he has little to add to her legacy.
Death on the Nile opens in theaters on February 11.