Death on the Nile

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Distributed by: 20th Century Studios

Written by Alexander Reams

68/100

With a star studded cast, revered source material, and true care at the helm, Kenneth Branagh’s sly adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” became a sleeper hit. Shooting on 65mm film, a rarity in the film industry, gorgeously captured the suffocating snow and ice to the vastness of Jerusalem’s monuments with skill and swiftness. After 4 long years of waiting (and a pandemic, and a plague of problems from the cast) Branagh and company return for another adaptation of Christie’s work, “Death on the Nile”.

Building from “Orient Express”, and instead of showing more restraint, Branagh chooses to go all-in on the hamminess and drama of the first, but still walking the line of soap opera territory as carefully as Hercule Poirot lines up his eggs for breakfast. The reason “Death on the Nile” works so well is because Branagh is more confident in this world than he was in “Orient Express”. Instead of going for vain revenge, Christie’s source material goes for crimes of passion. Adding an immediate level of emotion that “Orient Express” lacked. Even with a pandemic and actors that sabotaged their careers since filming, “Death on the Nile” continues Branagh’s history of making solid, old-fashioned Hollywood films. 

There is only so much Branagh can control, however, despite being a triple threat here (leading, directing, producing). Joining Branagh is Tom Bateman as the lovable Bouc, continuing his role from “Orient Express”, and continuing their father/son dynamic, Annette Benning as Euphemia, Bouc’s overbearing mother, who is reduced to just that, a shame to see a lovely actress reduced to a 2-word description, but she does the best she can. Also along for the ride is Russell Brand, a true standout, and surprisingly great dramatic performer, Ali Fazal, reduced to a stereotype, Rose Leslie as Louise, Linnet’s maid, Emma Mackey as Jackie, going full Jim Carrey in “The Cable Guy”, but appropriate for a film with this much eccentricity. Sophie Okonedo is the wonderfully wary Salome Otterbourne and Salome’s niece, Rosalie, a very, and I do mean, very underwhelming Letitia Wright. She continues to prove that she cannot act outside of the MCU, and cannot bring quality to a role with dramatic weight. Another strange, and questionable appearance is the comedy duo Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, who add almost nothing to the film besides some unnecessary comedic relief, that never hits. 

Rounding out the cast are Gal Gadot as Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle and Armie Hammer as Simon Doyle. Despite Hammer’s personal life, his performance here continues to show his quality as a performer. His character is fleshed out, and he one of the better performances in the film, though his accent does waver. For a film called “Death on the Nile”, it may surprise you to learn that there isn’t a death until over halfway through the film. Instead  we focus on the drama within each character, and their connection to Linnet.

During the first half, or dragging portion of the film, along with introductions to each character, we get our bearings for the tumultuous events of the second half of the film. This is where Haris Zambarloukos’s 65mm cinematography gets its time to shine. The pyramids of Egypt have seldom looked this lush. Soon after this, we board the eventual site of the murder, the S.S. Karnak. The reason for boarding is, albeit, strange. To outrun their stalker, Jackie (with whom Simon Doyle was previously engaged, and he left her to be with Linnet), the newlywed Doyle’s, and their wedding party, decide the best getaway is to board a boat in the middle of the Nile in the hopes she won’t follow. Big surprise, she does. This thinking shows a plague that has followed from “Orient Express”, the only character who has any smarts is Poirot. This can be entertaining as Poirot relentlessly interrogates every passenger, and adds a bit of humor. 

By the end, like the passengers, we are tired, of the journey, and these characters. An adaption is good, a faithful adaptation can be preferable. However, when you muddle the two it can make something that is neither. Still, the lavishness of Branagh’s adaptation of Christie’s work is a breath of fresh air. He’s bringing audiences a semblance of old Hollywood in the modern Hollywood system. His old-fashioned filmmaking has gone underappreciated before but after 4 years of waiting audiences are showing out for another murder mystery, and one with a big name source material. His adaptation is flawed but faithful, like Poirot himself, “Death on the Nile” seeks balance, and only finds it in the lack of dutch angles, not its story or acting.

Death on the Nile Trailer

“Death on the Nile” is currently in wide theatrical release.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

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