I remember being so excited by the first trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. Rather than try to update Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel to modern day, Branagh steered directly into the lavish period setting and populated it with a cast of stars and great character actors. On paper, I expected that to be one of my favorite movies of 2017. Instead it was an awkward, overly glossy, needlessly indulgent experience that seemed dead set on putting flashy CGI in the way of the mystery. But I still enjoyed it, in spite of all that. Now we finally have the long-delayed sequel, Death on the Nile, which goes even further into what doesn’t work and mines a lot less enjoyment.
Death on the Nile was originally supposed to come out in December 2020. It didn’t for various obvious and less obvious reasons. Now its cast, containing some very hot actors of the moment, have had a pandemic’s worth of news showing them to be less than worthy of acclaim. That’s an uphill battle right there. Armie Hammer specifically has to be very handsy with a couple of the women in the movie. It’s more than a little uncomfortable to watch given allegations against him. 20th Century opted not to reshoot his scenes, I think largely because they couldn’t. He’s in the background of every single scene whether he has any lines or not.
And unfortunately, Branagh doesn’t help matters. The first half is so full of unnecessary computer generated scenery and weirdly elaborate nightclub and party scenes that all we can do is look at the glamorous cast and shrug. I truly do not understand why there needs to be swooping cameras over clearly computer-rendered vistas. Is it just to illustrate how rich all these rich people are at a time when opulence was more opulent? It looks at times like a more restrained version of Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby. Only slightly more restrained, I assure you.
The story finds fastidious master sleuth Hercule Poirot (Branagh doing a Belgian accent) on holiday in Egypt. Almost unbelievably, he finds his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) also in Egypt with his mother (Annette Bening doing an English accent). Poirot quickly finds himself at a honeymoon party for wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and her not-wealthy new husband Simon (Hammer, doing an English accent).
We quickly meet a series of other party guests, all of whom, conveniently for a murder mystery, have some reason to want Linnet dead. Her former fiancé, Dr. Windlesham (Russell Brand doing a slightly different English accent); her socialite-turned-communist godmother (Jennifer Saunders doing an American accent); Linnet’s lady’s maid (Rose Leslie doing a French accent); her lawyer cousin Andrew (Ali Fazal); her schoolmate Rosalie and Rosalie’s blues musician aunt (Letitia Wright and Sophie Okenado, respectively, each doing an American accent). You get the point. Lots of suspects.
Chiefly among the possible suspects of the potential murder, however, is Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). She’s Linnet’s former friend and Simon’s former lover. Jackie followed the couple across the world in the vain hope of luring Simon back from Linnet. With all of these people around her, Linnet very rightly feels unsafe and wants to go home. But it’s her honeymoon! Maybe a private riverboat trip down the Nile will be good and not full of murder. Foreshadowing.
Luckily, I suppose, Branagh front-loads Death on the Nile with all the stuff I really disliked. All the overly complex CGI establishing shots, all the vapid rich people being way too sexual for 1937, all the ham-fisted exposition. Finally, mercifully, the actual death takes place on the Nile and we get the prerequisite Poirot-interrogates-everyone scenes. This is where the movie begins to feel like a Poirot story. Branagh is able to ratchet up the tension very nicely. I almost forgot—almost—by the end of the movie that the solution was very clearly and obviously set up earlier. That was fairly deflating.
I definitely don’t think the release and success of Knives Out in 2019 did any favors for Death on the Nile. It reminded everyone what’s fun about a whodunit—the cast of disreputable characters, a charming and quirky detective, actual twists and mystery—without needing all the glitz and hokeyness. The discrepancy would have been more apparent had Death kept its original 2020 release date, a mere year after Knives. Even given an extra 14 months, it feels packed with spectacle for the sake of it and only works when it finally focuses on the messy characters at the center.
With a couple of anti-science conspiracy theorists and an alleged sex-offender in the cast, it’d be hard to recommend Death on the Nile. Sadly even without those negative factors, the movie isn’t particularly engaging. The novelty of a big screen Poirot movie that carried a lot of Murder on the Orient Express isn’t here for Death, and while I do think Branagh makes for a good Poirot, he fills the movie with too much fluff and ridiculous extravagance to ever really work.
2 out of 5