DEATH ON THE NILE (Kenneth Branagh). 127 minutes. Some subtitles. In theatres everywhere Friday (February 11).
Released in the fall of 2017, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder On The Orient Express was a unicorn of sorts: a charming, expensive adaptation of a very old, vaguely remembered novel with Branagh strutting around as Agatha Christie’s fussy but incorruptible Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, quizzing an all-star cast of suspects (Olivia Colman! Michelle Pfeiffer! Daisy Ridley!) over the violent death of a man on a train.
It was all rather silly—Branagh’s ludicrous moustache alone gave us permission to snicker—but it made quite a lot of money, because this was back in the day when older audiences could still be lured to the megaplex to see something that didn’t have superheroes in it. And it ended with Poirot being informed of a death on the Nile, which to Christie fans was like Commissioner Gordon handing over that playing card at the end of Batman Begins: mes amis, we are only just getting started.
Four and a half years and a couple of unexpected complications later – those complications being the sale of 20th Century Fox to Disney, and COVID gumming up the release pipeline—the next chapter in Branagh’s Christie Cinematic Universe is here, just days after Branagh himself was showered with Oscar nominations for his autobiographical Belfast, and it is indeed an adaptation of Death On The Nile.
Once more, Poirot finds himself in the right place at the right time, carrying with him the twin gifts of deduction and OCD, to suss out a murder that seems almost impossible to solve. But this time around, it’s a lot less fun for the audience.
Manners prevent me from detailing the nature of the murder, or identifying the victim; those of you who’ve read the book can be assured Christie’s narrative remains intact, with a few small changes to secondary characters. As on the page, someone is shot dead during the celebratory wedding cruise of Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and his new bride Linnet (Gal Gadot), and everyone aboard turns out to have good reason to have pulled the lethal trigger. Can Poirot solve the crime before the boat reaches land, and the killer has a chance to flee?
Nodding to the expectations of a modern audience, the pool of suspects has been made more diverse in gender and ethnicity, which works just fine. The characters played by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French were men in the book, for example, but this way we get to see the legendary British comic duo reunited on-screen, wearing expensive period costumes and, one presumes, being paid rather well for their time.
The fact that I am bothering to note this should give you a sense of how little else of note there is in the film, which takes absolutely forever to get going—that pivotal death comes a full hour into the running time—and then seems to rush through the investigation as though Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green are thumbing through the pages of Christie’s novel looking for the good bits.
And there are good bits here and there. Sex Education’s Emma Mackie finally plays an adult, as the jilted fiancée of the sneering Simon. (He left her for Linnet after she introduced them at a London jazz club six months earlier, as we see in a crushingly long prologue.) Rose Leslie delivers a hesitant flutter as Louise Bourget, loyal nurse to Linnet. There’s also the warmth Branagh’s Poirot feels for his former man-at-arms Bouc (Tom Bateman), who happens to be among the wedding party with his discontented mother Euphemia (Annette Bening). But these are superficial pleasures, because the movie itself is inert.
Where Murder On The Orient Express brought the audience into the action with an unexpected sense of playful camp, Death On The Nile takes our engagement for granted: it’s a sequel, you showed up, you know how this goes. And so Branagh proceeds to do more of the same—elaborate sets, meticulously appointed wardrobes, little nods to Poirot’s need to bring symmetry and balance in a world he cannot control. (The character’s signature moustache has changed its shape, too; it’s now got a little Art Deco thing going on, like the wings a child used to be given after visiting the cockpit of an airplane.)
But the simmering energy of the previous film is gone. Death On The Nile is ultimately a movie about actors sitting around in rooms, waiting for their monologue. The long, long road to the murder feels less like an attempt to wring every bit of drama out of Christie’s slender novel than a way to fill the expected running time of a feature film. There is no sin in bringing these things in at 105 minutes, you know. People used to do it all the time.