Death on the Nile is a good old-fashioned mess of a movie
Love is a (social) battleground.
Every franchise has its own set of symbols. Batman has pointed ears on his cowl, drives a stylish automobile, and flashes the Bat-Signal. The mosquito in amber and the cunning velociraptors can be found in Jurassic Park. Poirot, Hercule? He has a stylish mustache that has appeared in a number of films, television shows, and stage plays. Agatha Christie’s famed investigator isn’t synonymous with solving mysteries in the same way that Sherlock Holmes is, but his brand? It’s potent.
That brand, too, was on the verge of a rebirth. Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 film based on Christie’s novel featuring the mustachioed investigator, was a surprise blockbuster, grossing $352 million on a $55 million budget. Branagh plays Poirot and is surrounded by a star-studded ensemble that includes Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, and others – all wrapped in an Imagine Dragons-infused marketing campaign.
Murder on the Orient Express, like Batman Begins, ended with a sequel tease, this time promising “a murder on the bloody nile,” implying that Branagh will adapt Christie’s Death on the Nile next. Then COVID-19 demolished that idea. Death on the Nile was supposed to be released around the 2019 holiday season, but it was pushed back owing to the pandemic, so it arrived two years later than expected, and it’s a peculiar film for it.While the film sat in production and its studio hoped for a profitable wide release, its cast suffered a number of public relations disasters ranging in severity, including Letitia Wright’s alleged anti-vax messaging, Gal Gadot’s divisive stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and, most notably, troubling and bizarre allegations of abuse and sexual coercion leveled against Armie Hammer, leading to his Hollywood exile.
Unfortunately for Death on the Nile, Hammer’s character, striver Simon Doyle, who marries above his rank, is important to the storyline, and discussion about the film’s pandemic distribution plan quickly gave place to conjecture about its Armie Hammer approach. Two years later, the studio approach to Hammer appears to be the same as many businesses’ response to the pandemic: Disney and 20th Century Studios are quietly pushing through with the picture, ignoring the risks.
Death on the Nile is, for the most part, an awkward film, one that’s difficult to understand in trailers that only show Hammer in passing, and one that arrives at an odd moment, as the global epidemic curdles into a restless public anxiety about how to behave in a new normal that lacks definition. A late February release is a compromise for a film that would ordinarily be released around the holiday season but may thrive without one if the competition is weak enough. What a fantastic setting for a film about the tiny bourgeoisie cozied up to money before killing to obtain it.
Death on the Nile is a murder mystery that revolves around one of the most logical triggers for murder: a wedding. (Do you disagree? Try making one.) Simon Doyle, a low-income guy, has recently married affluent heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), a startling turn of events following Doyle’s previous whirlwind engagement to Linnet’s closest friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). The newlyweds will spend their honeymoon with friends and family on the S.S. Karnak, a pleasure barge that will transport them across Eastern Africa for several days of lavish revelry and “enough champagne to fill the Nile.”
While on holiday in Egypt, Poirot’s buddy Bouc (Tom Bateman, repeating his character from Murder on the Orient Express) asks him to join in on the festivities, which turn sour when Linnet is discovered killed. With a boat full of suspects and the restricted area shrinking as the killer gets desperate, Poirot must locate the perpetrator before they strike again — yet, like in any good mystery, almost everyone is acting suspiciously and has a reason.
Branagh, as Poirot, gives a more subdued performance this time around. He’s a detective who is proud of his abilities to solve crimes while yet being offended by them. Behind his massive beard, Branagh hints at a profound sadness. In a cast full of inconsistent performances — their level typically corresponding with how much time the film spends with a character — that baseline is appreciated. Hammer is an exception.Simon Doyle is a character that must express both charm and danger, as Hammer has demonstrated in films such as Sorry to Bother You and Rebecca. However, the film does not arrive in a vacuum – awareness of the actor’s continuous problems makes reading any of his work generously difficult. His appearance feels almost like a spoiler.
Branagh’s adaptation from a script by Michael Green, while mostly true to Christie’s novel, adds many changes to put it into continuity with the preceding film (the original books weren’t in order) and emphasizes the book’s class consciousness. Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) is a blues singer rather than a romance novelist in this version, and her niece/manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright) is in love with Bouc — a relationship Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Benning) is suspicious of, owing to the wealth Bouc stands to inherit — and while Euphemia is too polite to say it out loud, due to Rosalie’s race.
While the film is slow-paced and at times turgid, its portrayal of love as class warfare gives it a fascinating nasty streak that’s interesting to think about, even if it doesn’t play out onscreen in the most riveting way. Branagh’s vision is beautifully presented and lavishly created, but it is hampered by a vast cast that leaves too many characters undeveloped, and a languid pace that may make viewers feel imprisoned on the Karnak with said ensemble, and not in a good way.
Death on the Nile’s old-fashioned charm, with its wide vistas, warm colours, and complete trust that its mystery would keep the viewer intrigued, has some fascination. It’s showy because the people are: this is a narrative about extremely affluent Europeans frolicking on the Nile as natives carry their luggage and serve them lobster, and where a marriage and a signature can propel one guy from near obscurity to the highest echelons of society. It’s the ideal setting for Hercule Poirot.
Agatha Christie’s portrayal of Poirot continually paints him as despising chaos, to the point that he obsesses with symmetry. This is mostly played for comedy in Branagh’s hands; in one scene, he cannot begin to eat dessert until all of his pastries are neatly put on a dish. But there is sorrow here, a melancholy to this man who solves crimes and seeks balance among high society people. Unfortunately for Hercule Poirot, no symmetry can be found. Nobody is your friend when you have money, Linnet states before her death, and it’s no surprise that after her death, everyone around her is a suspect.