Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Hercule Poirot. One of these is the best detective in fiction, although the competition for the top spot is fierce. But I’d argue that Death On the Nile, the sequel to 2017’s Murder On the Orient Express, makes a compelling case for our pastry loving sleuth. For what other movie could construct an origin story for a mustache? Leave it to Kenneth Branagh, who stars as Poirot and directs ‘Nile, to give us this necessary information. Why? Because the people crave character development, even when that character is a batch of whiskers.
The film’s opening is an intriguing scene, which features a younger Poirot as a soldier in World War I. The brilliant detective proves to also be a resourceful strategist, but tragedy leaves him wounded and spiritually defeated. Fast forward to present day, where our sleuth finds himself called to participate in a family vacation for a couple of wealthy newlyweds – Linnet Ridgeway Doyle (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Hannibal the Cannibal). This vacation includes a yacht party on the Nile River, filled with a throng of relatives and friends of the Doyles. But a cloud hangs over the get together – Jacqueline (Emma Mackey) is the jilted ex-lover of Simon, as well as Linnet’s former friend, and she stalks the vacation while appearing to be on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. It becomes clear this is the reason Poirot was called to attend, and it’s not long before GASP there’s a murder onboard!
Poirot’s investigation takes several turns as he attempts to get to the bottom of the case. Like in a lot of Agatha Christie adaptations, there’s a mad dash to tie everyone and their mom to the victim, due to the limited time in a movie to establish characters as opposed to a novel. Thus leading to goofy scenes, such as one character reciting a speed round of exposition to Poirot: “AND THIS PERSON IS RELATED TO THAT PERSON! AND THAT WOMAN USED TO BABYSIT THAT GUY! AND SHE USED TO MOW HIS LAWN!” in a way that no one has ever talked. The movie works best when it zips past the noisy obfuscation, and zeroes in on specific motivations that could lead to a potential killer. It takes about 40 minutes for the film to really get going, but then the film finds itself.
The supporting cast is a mix of solid performances along with the bizarre. Tom Bateman returns as Poirot’s trusty friend Bouc, now with an expanded role from ‘Orient Express. We meet Bouc’s mother, Euphemia (Annette Bening), and there’s a subplot involving these characters and more that make-up much of the film’s heart. Bening is excellent, as always, while Bateman’s loving comraderie with Branagh help humanize Poirot, despite his very apparent character flaws.
Letitia Wright, in what may be one of her last mainstream roles, plays an old classmate of Linnet, as well as an unexpected love interest for a key character. Wright’s performance here is… interesting… including a perplexing southern accent that probably should have been abandoned mid-way through filming. I can’t tell if she’s from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Houstatlantavegas, or somewhere in between, but she delivers several lines that elicit unintentional comedy. Then there’s Russell Brand, who has garnered some criticism for his performance as Linnet’s ex-fiance. But his reserved approach to the role isn’t bad by any means, and if anything perfectly leads up to a random roar that he emits right before a fight (maybe the ADR was mis-timed, but it is unclear).
The standout is Emma Mackey, who walks around as if an unseen spotlight is following her. Her sultry performance would fit as a Femme Fatale in the film noirs of yesteryear, and Jaqueline’s chemistry with Simon is much more believable than the Simon/Linnet pairing. Speaking of Simon, this man may be the horniest dancer in movie history. With both Jacqueline and Linnet, he enacts some of the most lewd and suggestive moves this side of a Wayans Bros parody.
The mystery of the film has me conflicted. On the one hand, Death on the Nile is considered one of the more predictable Agatha Christie books, among fans. However, I preferred the way this was handled as opposed to Branagh’s approach in Murder on the Orient Express. The previous film requires heavy investment into two characters, one who has about 5 minutes of screentime, and another who we never meet. To compensate, the movie exploits the death of a child to garner easy sympathy, all leading to an awkwardly filmed reveal that’s inferior to Sidney Lumet’s 1974 original ‘Orient Express. In Branagh’s Death on the Nile, we at least spend more time with the key characters, allowing for organic investments that isn’t reliant on child death. Veterans of the whodunit genre may be able to piece things together quickly, but this tale of lust and love is still captivating to see unfold.
It also ties neatly with the arc of Hercule, as he desperately tries to overcome the grief over his late Katherine. I give them an ‘A’ for effort for trying to tie the mustache to their romance in a sweet way, although it’s not entirely believable. He doesn’t even look scarred in most of the movie, it looks more like razor bumps.
Overall, your mileage will vary based on how much adoration you have for the traditional whodunit. Knives Out this is not, mostly because Rian Johnson is standing on the shoulders of Agatha Christie in order to evolve the genre. But Branagh’s direction and performance gives this tale enough importance, class, and charm even if it’s narrative conventions are a bit dated. Death on the Nile, for all its faults, is fun and emotionally cathartic. Whether we’ll see Branagh pick up the mustache again depends on how highly Disney values 20th Century Studios (It’s not looking good, unfortunately…). But I’ll gladly RSVP for whatever weird adventure Hercule “Don’t call me Hercules” Poirot gets inexplicably called to next.