Death on the Nile: a pleasant cocktail of murder mystery and moustaches
A mere month after the release of awards-favourite Belfast, Kenneth Branagh is back in cinemas. Only this time it is with an entirely different story – the much delayed return of his budding Agatha Christie franchise in Death on the Nile. Branagh returns as Hercule Poirot, the idiosyncratic genius detective in charge of solving the titular death, in and amongst a line-up of star suspects including Gal Gadot, Sophie Okonedo, Armie Hammer, Russel Brand, Letitia Wright and many more.
The story itself is simple and yet layered with the type of mystery and deceitfulness you expect from a Christie adaptation. Yet, the problem is everything you’d expect. Whilst you might not be able to guess the entire solution to the crime, it has nothing of the surprise and glee of Branagh’s previous outing in Murder on the Orient Express .
Besides the final reveal, you’ll find all the expected tropes such as the individual interrogations, the backstabbing, the hidden motives, and an overplayed yet knowing use of Chekhov’s gun. Whilst all of this is at the very least functional and at best simply light entertainment, the enjoyment to be found within this film comes largely outside the central murder plot in the form of its self-jabbing humour and a wonderfully exaggerated performance by Branagh. Whilst Death on the Nile is bloated and its plot is mostly unspectacular, its lavish costumes, over-the-top acting, and occasional wit makes it a worthy way to pass the time.
This wit is in large part due to the addition of British comedy duo Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders in supporting roles. Saunders in particular plays a character who is a socialist and consistently verbally protests all of the ‘rich people shenanigans’ so central to the plot (whilst also simultaneously taking part in them herself). The very reason these people are even together becomes something to poke fun at. Guests to a lavish extended wedding reception, the champagne is unlimited and the black tie waiters parade around in a seemingly never-ending fountain of opulence . Thus the comedy here is twofold. Since the jokes themselves are actually rather well written and performed with just the right level of pomposity they work in their own right, whilst also acting as ongoing protests to the ridiculous wealth funding the ridiculous extravagance. Similarly, the tone of Poirot himself has adapted into someone who seems more willing to let loose and embrace his most unique characteristics.
Not only does Poirot’s famous moustache return in prime form but it also gets its own character arc, complete with an origin story and a final scene that is actually a rather touching commentary on identity and personal acceptance. Armie Hammer’s slim, slimy moustache quite frankly wishes it could even hold half of the power and grandeur. Nevertheless, hearing Branagh claim himself to be the greatest detective alive will never not be both completely silly and joyous at the same time. More so than in The Orient Express, Branagh seems supremely comfortable in the role and manages to pay respect to his literary stature whilst remembering that his roots are in pulp storytelling and thus part of the job is to play into the expectations a bit.
Despite all this, the film itself certainly contains some structural issues that are not helped by its largely mediocre mystery. A problem it shares with its predecessor Murder on the Orient Express is that the background scenery serves little to no purpose nor is particularly well realised in an aesthetic manner. In both films the background and location are merely means of providing a ‘lockdown’ situation wherein characters cannot easily come and go.
Here, there is little interaction with the Egyptian scenery surrounding it nor does it play into the film’s themes of wealth and marriage in more than a superficial way. In this sense, the multiple opening sequences before we actually reach the cruise ship add little to the film and only make the runtime feel somewhat bloated. Besides a smart bit of cocktail gossip turned succinct character exposition delivered by Poirot’s friend and occasional sidekick Bouc (Tom Bateman), much of the establishing sequences could’ve been cut and little would be lost to the story.
This is particularly noteworthy because later on, after the initial murder, the film skips on the wider interactions of the larger ensemble and instead focuses almost entirely on a series of individual interrogations by Poirot. This ultimately makes some of the suspects’ motives feel thin and underdeveloped whilst also making the story itself feel partly inorganic. Seemingly to combat this, Death on the Nile introduces a more personal element to its mystery that brings into question Poirot’s own culpability and moral compass. Whilst this does provide the film with some interesting moments of drama, the intended emotional heft is entirely lost in and amongst the grandiose melodrama that surrounds it.
Ultimately, Death on the Nile is a mixed bag. It has a mediocre plot propped up by a fantastic central performance and sustained by a knowing, humorous tone that plays into the genre’s tropes in a satisfying if predictable manner. Yet it’s refreshing, light-hearted fun also undermines any emotional impact the plot may be trying to offer and ends in slightly too clean and uncomplicated a way, particularly in the case of its thinly drawn scenery and underdeveloped supporting characters.