Part of the fun that comes with watching a big screen taut sexy thriller like an Agatha Christie novel is allowing the audience to solve the case alongside the famed detective Hercule Poirot. These whodunit mysteries are a form of pure fun escapism that takes us away from all the worries of the outside world and has us glued to our seats watching the eccentric and egotistical detective solve the case of murder. And with a film like “Death on the Nile,” we have everything neatly together in one very luxurious mode of transportation. But even with a higher production budget, a stacked – but also very problematic -cast, and a superb set and costume design, the film’s attempt to give depth to Poirot is interesting but does nothing for the film as a whole.
“Death on the Nile” finds a lone Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) enjoying some much-needed time off by taking in the sights in Egypt. But that alone time is cut short when he finds himself being whisked away aboard the S.S. Karnak at the request of the Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot), a wealthy socialite who is on his honeymoon after marrying Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer.). Linnet wants Poirot to stop resentful Jacqueline (Emma Mackey), Linnet’s former friend and Simon’s former lover, from stalking them. While he refuses, Poirot attempts to dissuade Jacqueline from continuing her stalking of the two love birds. He also convinces Linnet and Simon to push their honeymoon up in an attempt to stay ahead and away from Jacqueline.
The other Karnak passengers include the charming Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s friend and confidant, and Bouc’s overprotective mother, Euphemia (Annette Bening). Also aboard are Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand), an aristocratic doctor who also happens to be Linnet’s former fiance, and Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazel), Linnet’s cousin and lawyer, as well as Linnet’s lady’s maid Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie). Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), Linnet’s godmother and socialite-turned-Communist, and her nurse, Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French), are also aboard. And jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) is on board as the ship’s entertainment. She is joined by Rosalie Otterbourne (Letitia Wright), Salome’s niece and business manager.
But the happy honeymoon is shattered when one of the passengers is found murdered aboard the Karnak. So it is up to Poirot to identify which one of the passengers is the killer before they can strike again. And with so many scorned lovers and people with plenty of motives, it could be anyone.
Sure, a film with an A-list cast like this sounds inviting, especially for today’s audience who may not be overly familiar with Christie’s works. But a large part of the film’s problems lies in juggling all of those characters, developing their arcs, and handling other subplots. The problem is that it makes “Death on the Nile’s” 127-minute run time feel like it’s a lot longer than it should. Sure, the film plays things by the numbers or operates similarly to Branagh’s “Death on the Oriental Express,” where much of the evidence is out of sight, and the connecting dots aren’t in the picture. Sure there may be some tells to look out for, but without being any more obvious, it removes the audience from deducing it ourselves and leaves us to speculate. It leaves us as mere spectators.
But “Death on the Nile” works in terms of giving Poirot more of an arc. Finally, we get to see the person behind the mustache, the physical and psychological scars he hides, and how he operates on the field. Even a glimpse of the past shows us how his sharp and keen deductive skills work when under pressure. And surrounding him with a somewhat likable cast helps to elevate that character work in ways that keeps audiences fully engaged. This is especially true whenever Poirot is with Bouc, a fun-loving, charming sidekick who lives by the idea that you only live once. A flashback of Doyle and Jacquline’s previous relationship plays out with a steamy dance sequence at an energized jazz club where Otterbourne is performing. The sensuality between Doyle and Jacquline is palpable compared to the other dancing couples surrounding them. But it does provide other clues necessary to give these characters the motive for murder.
Again, the number of characters at play may add to the mystery, but it doesn’t give them much to do as they jostle for screentime. Still, the cast work with what they got and most play their parts well. I’d probably give the film much of the cast more praise if their off-screen controversies weren’t so problematic. But their presence doesn’t make it any less entertaining.
And like its predecessor, “Death on the Nile” is politically aware of the racial prejudices that exist in the late 1930s and early 1940s – as pointed out by white club owners shortchanging Black jazz singers like Salome for her on-stage performance and Roslie fighting to ensure they get their pay.
While “Death on the Nile’s” consciousness of the racism and prejudices of that time links to one of the film’s subplots and reveals Poiriot’s progressive attitudes. Normally that would be fine, especially for a modern audience who welcomes such inclusivity. It’s refreshing to see something like this, even if it does feel like an anecdotal subplot that insists on drawing out the drama. To be fair, I understand what the film was going for in that regard, and it would have made for a fine piece of work had it completely distanced itself from the actual story. Honestly, it would have worked better as two separate films.
There’s no denying that Branagh continues to share his love for Poirot and Agatha Christie’s novels on a larger scale. He understands the character well and can channel that charming, witty, and egotistical personality into an energized performance that keeps the audience fully engaged. Sure, the script adapted source material itself is pure cheezy drama, and even with all of the subplots, there’s no denying that “Death on the Nile’s” main story keeps us playing the game of whodunit.
And even with some of its storytelling flaws, “Death on the Nile” is a serviceable form of pure escapism. Audiences are whisked away to a time and place that can only be found in history books. It’s a kind of deadly murder mystery filled with characters who are all dressed as if they were putting it on the Ritz. So if this second installment of Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie novels helps attract a newer audience to these whodunit-inspired films, then I am all for it.
Catch Death on the Nile in theaters on February 11