By Charlie Ridgely
Director and actor Kenneth Branagh found success in 2017 with his take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, helming the feature from behind the camera and starring as Hercule Poirot, the “greatest detective alive.” After solid reviews and more than $350 million at the box office, 20th Century gave Branagh another mysterious Christie tale. More than four years and several release delays later, Death on the Nile is finally hitting theaters. This sleek thriller takes a little while to get going, but Branagh and his talented cast still manage to deliver yet another satisfying mystery.
Death on the Nile once again follows Branagh’s Poirot as he journeys to Egypt and happens upon an old colleague, Bouc (Tom Bateman, reprising his role from Murder on the Orient Express). Their meeting, which is no mere coincidence, leads to Hercule joining Bouc and his mother (Annette Benning) for an extravagant wedding celebration and honeymoon trip. A rich heiress (Gal Gadot) has married a handsome nobody (Armie Hammer) mere months after being introduced by the man’s former fianceé, Jacqueline (Emma Mackey). The entire wedding party, along with the vengeful ex-lover, boards a cruise ship to take them on an excursion down the Nile River. Danger follows close behind.
Death on the Nile is fueled by two things: love and money. The story centers around a woman who has more money than she could ever figure out what to do with, and a cast of supporting characters who would love to take it, unless of course they already have too much of their own. The only thing that seems to drive these people crazier than money is the idea of love and their desperate need for it. Every character, Poirot included, has their complicated relationship to love explored at length.
The desire to show off the extravagance of the wealthy, and how far they’ll go for their passions, takes up the entire first half of Death on the Nile, leading to the film’s most glaring issue. An entire hour is spent establishing these characters, their relationships to one another, and the glamorous world they inhabit. The individual narratives could’ve easily been set up in half the time, as love and greed are themes that anyone watching can understand on a fundamental level without a lot of context. In trying to establish the grandiose nature of the Egyptian landscapes, the green screens and computer-generated structures become a little too obvious. It’s beautiful but noticeably unnatural.
While the dialogue and performances make every minute at least enjoyable, that first half drags. The several-minute opening that flashes back to Poirot’s time in WWI feels especially drawn out and unnecessary. Once the hour mark hits and that first murder takes place, however, things change in an instant. Branagh immediately flips a switch and enters murder-mystery mode, something that he once again proves to excel at. Everything from that point on moves at a breakneck speed. A sense of panic washes over the entire boat, and every character housed on it, creating an environment of beautiful chaos. The stress kicks in instantly and you can feel yourself almost involuntarily sliding to the edge of your seat.
It’s such a joy to watch the layers of this mystery unfold over the film’s second half. I wouldn’t say it completely justifies the length of the first half, but you certainly stop thinking about how much time it took to get there. And that extra character work early on does have some payoff.
A truly great mystery requires every character to make you feel a variety of different things about them over the course of their journeys. You have to believe every one of these people is totally innocent, while also being convinced at one point or another that they could definitely be the killer. Going too far in either direction either telegraphs the big reveal or makes it disappointing. This entire cast is up to the task.
Branagh is as delightful as ever with his take on the quirky Hercule Poirot, giving himself a lot more to do this time around. But Poirot is the one person who you can take at face value (though never underestimate). This cast excels at bringing to life characters who are as secretive and potentially sleazy as they are endearing and relatable. Emma Mackey is a show-stopper as the abandoned lover Jacqueline. It takes a lot of talent to slide into a role originated by Mia Farrow, and Mackey has it in spades. Annette Benning and Sophie Okonedo also shine through as standouts in a cast that doesn’t have a weak spot.
Of course, while they may be faultless on-screen, there is the elephant in the room when it comes to this shining ensemble. It’s difficult to watch Armie Hammer be a leading man, women like Gadot and Mackey gushing over him, after disturbing allegations of his real-life conduct with women surfaced last year. His earliest scenes in the film aren’t without their cringes. Yes, it all makes him a convincing sleaze when the time calls for it, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch him enjoy so much screen time. The best you can do is know that Death on the Nile was made before the allegations were brought forward and you can spend your time appreciating the work everyone else put into the film, but it would be understandable if Hammer’s inclusion makes you want to think twice about buying a ticket. It feels like something that needs to be mentioned because Disney has (wisely) removed nearly every trace of him from the trailers and marketing materials.
This take on Death on the Nile largely sticks to Agatha Christie’s original story, so there aren’t any major surprises waiting at the end if you’ve already read her tale or watched the 1978 film. But Agatha Christie has such a lasting legacy for a reason. Her characters and stories have stood the test of time because they are as excellent now as they were when she published them. Branagh and writer Michael Greene are well aware of this and clearly love the literary icon’s work. They simply put the pieces in place, provided a steady hand when necessary, and allowed Christie and the cast to work their magic.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Death on the Nile arrives in theaters on February 11th.
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