I’ve been hungry for a good old-fashioned whodunnit for a while now. So what better time for Kenneth Branagh to serve up his much-delayed Agatha Christie adaptation “Death on the Nile”. Branagh directs, produces and stars in this period mystery that’s based on Christie’s popular 1937 novel. And it’s the second installment in Branagh’s film series centered around renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (the first being 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express”). I love that this cinematic universe is a thing.
Branagh returns as super-sleuth extraordinaire Hercule Poirot and he brings along another star-studded cast. This one includes Gal Gadot, Annette Benning, Russell Brand, Armie Hammer, Ali Fazal, Letitia Wright, Emma Mackey, Tom Bateman, Sophie Okonedo, Rose Leslie, and more. The story is handled by returning screenwriter Michael Green and it takes us from war-torn Belgium to a buzzing London to ancient Egypt where the over 4,000 mile Nile River snakes through its vast desert sands.
Branagh opens his film up with a backstory we never knew we needed – the origin of Poirot’s extravagant signature mustache. OK, so I’m being a little facetious. There’s a little more to the exquisitely shot prologue than that. Set in 1917 on a war-scarred Belgian battlefield, young Poirot’s keen sense of deduction saves his company. But he can’t save his captain who is killed by an explosion that leaves the future detective’s face horribly scarred. Later in a medical hospital, a lovely young nurse named Katherine (Susannah Fielding) pays him a visit. The two clearly have a connection, but he fears she’ll leave after seeing his face. “You’ll grow a mustache,” she says with a tender, heartfelt smile.
Bop ahead to 1937 London where the mustachioed Poirot sits in a night club soaking in the soulful tunes of jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Okonedo). His bright blue eyes scope out the patrons, noticing every detail and logging them in his mind. Lighting up the dance floor is the dashing Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and his beautiful fiancé, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). Minutes later, in walks Linnet Ridgeway (played with an ever-present sizzle by Gal Gadot), a wealthy heiress and Jacqueline’s close friend. Remember those names.
Six weeks later, Poirot is vacationing in Egypt, admiring the Great Sphinx of Giza from the shores of the River Nile. There he unexpectedly bumps into an old friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman) who’s in the area with his artist mother Euphemia (Annette Bening) to attend a wedding party at a posh 5-Star hotel. Poirot agrees to join them and several handpicked special guests at the obscenely lavish event where he meets the recently married couple of honor – Simon Doyle and ….. Linnet Ridgeway, NOT Jacqueline de Bellefort.
But as you might imagine, the embittered, scorned and slightly unhinged Jacqueline is not out of the picture. In fact, she’s been shadowing the newlyweds around the globe, popping up at every stop to stir up trouble. When she shows up at their shindig in Egypt, Simon and Linnet rent out a luxury riverboat, the SS Karnak, for them and their handful of guests. Linnet convinces Poirot to come as well, secretly sharing her distrust for her privileged party. “When you have money no one is ever really your friend,” she explains. “I don’t feel safe with any of them.”
The swanky vessel chugs up the Nile, eventually dropping anchor in front of the famed Abu Simbel shrine. The massive monument to King Ramesses II forms a picturesque background for the knotty story that unfolds. One that involves deception, betrayal, and course murder. With one dead body, Poirot sets out to find the killer before more meet the same fate. And you couldn’t ask for a better collection of suspects: the former classmate, the old flame, the accountant, the singer, the painter, the doctor, the maid, the godmother, and so on.
One of the trickiest parts of a movie like this is defining the suspects. You have to root out some kind of believable motive in each of them while also giving us reasons to believe them innocent. It also has to put us in a similar mindset as Poirot. We need to become detectives – watching, listening and soaking up the details. It then needs to bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. One that connects the pieces and makes sense. While I was left with a couple of minor questions, “Death on the Nile” mostly accomplishes all of the above. I was engaged throughout.
The ensemble cast is in fine form with a few notable standouts. Branagh is terrific in the lead, capturing Poirot’s steely professional ego but also his more closely guarded sensitivity. There’s an unexpectedly warm subtext found in Poirot’s hidden fascination with love and its many textures. It’s born out of his own personal sense of loss and adds an extra layer to the character which Branagh handles in just the right key.
I mentioned Gadot’s sizzle. We also get a wonderfully understated and nearly unrecognizable Russell Brand playing (I love this name) Linus Windlesham, Linnet’s former beau. Rose Leslie is really good as Linnet’s maid/gopher. I also like the sultry confidence and style Sophie Okonedo brings to Salome. Of course the distracting ickiness associated with Hammer’s casting is hard to avoid, but it wore off over time as the character took the place of the disgraced actor. Still, it’s an obstacle.
In a way, “Death on the Nile” feels like a relic from a bygone era which I found to be one of its most alluring traits. Branagh whole-heartedly embraces the style of the classic whodunnits which I loved but will certainly impact some of the critical reaction. I also loved the look of the film from how Branagh and his DP Haris Zamabarloukos shoot the characters to the outstanding use of the Egyptian setting. It may not have the most seamless conclusion, but it’s a satisfying one. And watching Branagh’s Poirot once again crack another case left me with a grin on my face and hope for a third adventure. “Death on the Nile” is out now in theaters.