A private party boat on a river cruise. Isolated, the partygoers in their own little bubble. The cloistering is a change from the Agatha Christie novel this is based on, but any relevance that might have for today is sheer coincidence: director and star Kenneth Branagh’s second outing with Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot was originally scheduled to be released in December 2019.
Death on the Nile’s many delays since then have not all been COVID related, and further delays — permanent ones, even — wouldn’t have gone amiss. I’m not quite as down on Nile as I was on Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express, but I still have the same overarching question: Why?
The basic purpose of a movie is to entertain, of course. The basic purpose of a murder mystery is to off at least one person in a confounding way and make us care about finding the killer. If we’re gonna be greedy about our fun, we might even want to care about the person who gets murdered, maybe even the suspects, too.
But it’s an hour into Nile — halfway through the movie — before someone gets killed. If you haven’t read or don’t remember the book, you probably spent most of that hour wondering just who was going to fall victim, and perhaps not caring much, either: there’s not as much suspense in waiting for that death as the movie might wish there is. Even though this is not only one of those mysteries in which everyone’s a suspect but also a mystery in which a buncha people onscreen are plausibly courting murder.
See, because the party boat is to celebrate the marriage of heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot: Wonder Woman 1984, Keeping Up with the Joneses) to cad Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer: On the Basis of Sex, Cars 3). He dumped his former fiancée, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), instantly upon meeting Linnet, who also happens to be an old friend of Jacqueline’s. The happy couple are pretty heartless, and the dumpee is stalking them, determined to destroy their happiness. (Hence the escape to the river. Jacqueline finds them anyway.) All three are pretty much asking to be murdered.
Joining them on the boat are a bunch of Linnet’s hangers-on, almost all of them dour people: Linnet’s godmother and the godmother’s nurse-companion are played by, respectively, Jennifer Saunders (Sing, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie) and Dawn French (Coraline, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), yet the comedy pair are reuinted here to be the precise opposite of funny. Russell Brand (The Fight (2019), Trolls) is a sadsack old flame of Linnet’s who’s still in love with her and is apparently torturing himself by agreeing to join this extremely extended celebration of her nuptials. Linnet’s cousin and business manager (Ali Fazal: Victoria & Abdul, Furious 7) keeps trying to get the new bride to sign boring old documents. Linnet’s maid (Rose Leslie: Letters from Baghdad, Morgan) seems to resent her boss. A layabout acquaintance of Poirot’s (Tom Bateman: Cold Pursuit) and his mother (Annette Bening: Captain Marvel, 20th Century Women) might be less miserable than the rest, but the only person who is having the sort of rollicking time you’d expect from such alleged festivities is Sophie Okonedo (Hellboy, War Book) as the jazz singer Linnet has hired to entertain them. (Okonedo is pretty much solely responsible for the extra half star this movie earned from me over Orient Express.) But the singer’s niece and business manager (Letitia Wright: Avengers: Endgame, Ready Player One) falls right in line with everyone else’s downbeat mood. Surely they’re all wondering what the hell they’re doing there even before the murder.
It’s not much of a party, is what I’m saying. This should be juicy! Salacious! We should revel in all the seething jealousy and simmering resentments! Maybe we could do that in a longer version of this tale, eight episodes or so. But there are too many characters here for us to get to know any of them. And yet the movie decides it needs to spend some runtime on an extended opening sequence that serves as an origin story for *checks notes* Poirot’s outrageous facial hair.
The movie looks great, of course, its 1930s period elegance all fine and good. Except it reeks of unexamined colonialism — there isn’t a single Egyptian character here — which leaves a sour taste. But then returning screenwriter Michael Green (Jungle Cruise, The Call of the Wild) decided to insert what I can only imagine is intended to be some modern relevance via complicated interracial relationships that did not exist in the book and seem wildly anachronistic, certainly in how these motifs are simultaneously important to the plot and yet dismissed far too easily for the era. (One aspect of how that plays out accidentally holds up Poirot as hypocrite, and possibly a racist one, even as the film insists he is a nobly honorable man.)
Murder on the Orient Express featured some colorblind casting that went uncommented upon, which might have been the better option here, too. With one foot in its fantasy escapism and the other in what it hopes is grounded reality, the there that is barely even there in Death on the Nile is all over the place.