Death on the Nile movie review: Kenneth Branagh steps in the same river twice

MaryAnn’s quick take: This should be salacious! We should revel in the seething jealousy and simmering resentments! But there’s not much suspense or engagement in waiting for someone to die, nor in finding out whodunnit.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): didn’t like the first film
I can’t recall if I’ve read the source material (I might have as a teenager in my classic-mystery phase, but if so, clearly it didn’t stick)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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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?

Death on the Nile
Poirot, he is mysterious and unknowable like the Sphinx, no? Or maybe just his moustache…

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.

Death on the Nile Gal Gadot Emma Mackey Armie Hammer
They’re nasty people but they look amazing.

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.

Death on the Nile Sophie Okonedo
Best reason to see this? The always fabulous Sophie Okonedo.

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.

see also:
Murder on the Orient Express movie review: strangers on a train

more films like this:
Knives Out [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV]
Mr. Holmes [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV]

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Thu, Feb 17, 2022 12:21am

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.

If the entire movie were an origin story for Poirot’s facial hair, I’d be tempted to see it, but only if it were directed by someone else, like Wes Anderson or Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Steve Gagen
Steve Gagen
Sat, Feb 19, 2022 4:24am

Oh dear – perhaps Kenneth should stay away from Agatha Christie adaptations! Both seem to have been pretty bad. But I liked his earlier films! What a waste of a good cast too.

Lucy Gillam
Sun, Feb 20, 2022 5:09am

It really does seem odd that he would choose to do the most well-known, frequently adapted novels. It’s not like there’s not a plethora of Poirot stories that people don’t already know the endings to, and if David Suchet has put a definitive stamp on many of them, there are others like The Mysterious Affair at Styles that could really use a redo. (Can we have a Hastings who’s the proper age, pretty please? He’s supposed to be 30 in the first novel, almost certainly considerably younger than Poirot. Why is he always cast as the same age or older?)

For that matter, I would love to see like someone like Branagh could do with the Harley Quin stories. Just a little additional supernatural flavor, and they’d make an awesome Netflix mini.

reply to  Lucy Gillam
Sun, Feb 20, 2022 7:27pm

This I why I love the internet (and this website in particular). I get to interact with such a diverse group of people. I understand exactly where you’re coming from, because filmmakers are usually attracted to the most interesting stories they can tell. But I still feel like I’m looking at a bizarro version of myself, because I disagree so precisely with everything you said. I’d be surprised if directors managed to make films out of any but the most famous Agatha Christie stories. I kind of have a feeling that the first film was greenlit only because one of the studio executives had a child who was reading the book for class. I also think that Kenneth Branagh has made some of the least compelling superhero movies I’ve seen in the past decade or so.

Other directors have already made some fantastic films and TV shows about Harley Quinn. (I can keep track of how many because I buy new Harley action figures when they come out.) James Gunn made my favorite pure movie about her, and other folks have captured her psychology really well. I liked the character in the 1990s cartoons, but in the past ten or twenty years, she’s turned into one of my favorite superheroes—or supervillains—which may say more than I want you to know about me.

Lucy Gillam
reply to  Danielm80
Sun, Feb 20, 2022 9:48pm

Okay, small issue, here: The Harley Quin I am talking about (note the spelling) is a male character featured in a set of short stories by Agatha Christie, called The Mysterious Mr. Quin. They are not so much fair play mysteries as they are explorations of human emotion and motivation, with an undercurrent of the supernatural. And they are AWESOME.

The first story was “adapted” into a movie in 1928, in the same way “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been adapted, which is to say into something that has only the barest relationship to the story. In fact, it did a Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which a novelization of the movie supposedly based on the short story was released. But I love those stories, and I’d give anything to see them in the hands of someone like the people who made Hill House and Bly Manor, someone who would tease out the supernatural elements, and the awesome relationship between Quin and the protagonist, Mr. Satterthrwaite.

(I, um, may have committed fan fiction to this effect. Spoilers for the last of the short stories.)

The rest…I mean, all the Poirot novels and short stories have been adapted in one way or another, some as theatrical releases, many as television shows. I’m guessing (and please, I don’t mean this as a critique) that you’re American. Christie’s works are kind of like Batman, Superman, and Spider-man combined. They get retold over and over again. There was certainly enough interest to sustain decades of Poirot stories starring David Suchet.

I suppose I come back to the same place I do when people argue that there’s not enough “interest” in female superheroes to give them tentpole movies: they made Iron Man a compelling enough character for three solo movies and how many team-ups? Tony Stark was neither particularly well-known nor particularly compelling before Downey got involved. There’s no reason an actor of Branagh’s ability couldn’t make Poirot’s “origin story” a compelling movie that stands at least as much chance of financial success as a fourth retelling of Orient express.

Ahem. I should maybe mention that I started reading Christie in the second grade, and was a pretty serious fan for a long time. I have Feelings about all of this.

reply to  Lucy Gillam
Sun, Feb 20, 2022 10:01pm

My knowledge of Agatha Christie consists of “The Mousetrap” and a handful of movies, so I’m genuinely grateful for the information. And I think Harley Quin should team up with the cartoon character.

Lucy Gillam
reply to  Danielm80
Sun, Feb 20, 2022 10:23pm

Well, he does dress in motley in the last story, so that would be cool.