Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews Death on the Nile

Josh Reviews Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile is the sequel to the 2017 film Murder on the Orient Express.  It’s an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel.  Kenneth Branagh returns to direct as well as star as the master detective Hercule Poirot.

The year is 1937, and Poirot sees a happy, recently engaged couple celebrating in a bar.  The couple is Jacqueline (Jackie) de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer).  That night, Jackie introduces her fiancé Simon to her old friend, the beautiful and famous (and rich) Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot).  Only six weeks later, in Egypt, Poirot finds himself enmeshed in the group celebrating Simon’s engagement to… Linnet; Jackie having been spurned.  Simon and Linnet are fearful that Jackie plans to take some sort of violent revenge against them, and so they ask Poirot for help as the group sets sail down the Nile aboard a luxurious private cruise ship.  When a murder takes place, Poirot must once again try to suss out which among the many suspects on board, each with a variety of secrets and possible motives, is the killer.

I thought Mr. Branagh’s 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express was enjoyable if unspectacular, and I feel very much the same about this much-delayed follow-up.  (The movie was shot in 2019, before the pandemic, and then repeatedly delayed due to the shut-down of movie theaters.)  This isn’t exactly groundbreaking cinema, and there’s not much revelatory or exciting in either this story or in how it was brought to the screen.  (Death on the Nile has been adapted several times before, on TV and film.)  On the other hand, Mr. Branagh has once again assembled an impressive ensemble of talented actors, and it’s fun to see them bounce off of one another.

Mr. Branagh is entertainingly bizarre as Poirot.  However, two movies in, I wish we had gotten to know this guy a little more.  But I guess that’s not the intention of this type of story.  (The film does actually try to give us a glimpse of Mr. Poirot’s backstory with an opening sequence set during WWI.  I love the idea, and actually that sequence was a high point of the film for me.  The down-side is that I didn’t really see the connection between the Poirot that we saw in that scene and the fussy, fastidious man we see during the rest of the film.  Also, while in theory I like the idea of learning the origin story of his crazy mustache, I thought it was weird that present-day Poirot doesn’t seem to have any of the scars I’d think he would have had following his rather horrific injuries in the war.  So that didn’t really make sense for me.)

Gal Gadot is great as Linnet.  Ms. Gadot has incredible movie-star charisma and beauty.  It’s fun to see her on-screen playing a role different than Diana/Wonder Woman.  She has such an easy, comfortable on-screen presence.  She’s fun to watch.  I wish she had more to do in the film.  Emma Mackey is a great counterpoint to her as the spurned Jackie.  She has an interesting, crazy-eyed intensity that makes her dangerous without being too over-the-top silly.  In the years since this film was originally shot, Armie Hammer has been accused of abuse and other disturbing acts, so he’s a somewhat distracting presence to watch in the film now.  I will say that I can completely understand why Mr. Hammer was originally cast, because the way he’s able to combine handsome charm and oily creepiness works perfectly for the role.  A toned-down Russell Brand is almost unrecognizable as Linus Windlesham, a doctor and Linnet’s former fiancé.  Mr. Brand is fun to see in this very off-type role as the quiet, subdued Linus!  It’s nice to see Tom Bateman again, reprising his role from Murder on the Orient Express as Poirot’s friend Bouc, and the great Annette Bening is terrific as Bouc’s strong-willed mother Euphemia.  Rose Leslie (“You know nothing, Jon Snow”) is vibrant as always as Linnet’s personal aide, Louise.  (I wish she had a larger role in the film.)  Letitia Wright (Black Panther) is also a strong presence as Rosie Otterbourne, the young woman in love with Bouc, much to Bouc’s mother’s dismay and disapproval.  I’ve barely even scratched the surface of the cast.  Also great are: Sophie Okonedo as jazz-singer Salome Otterbourne; Jennifer Saunders as Linnet’s godmother Marie Van Schuyler; Dawn French as Marie’s nurse Mrs. Bowers; and Ali Fazal as Andrew Katchadourian, the manager of Linnet’s finances.

I don’t want to spoil the details of the plot, but I will say that I was bummed that I was able to so easily predict the ending.  (I didn’t think that the film did a good enough job hiding the involvement of the villains.)  I also think the film suffers from a somewhat uneven tone.  This isn’t supposed to be a grim drama; this is supposed to be a sumptuously entertaining and enjoyable whodunit.  But the film has a surprisingly (to me) high body-count, and as people continued to die I had increasing trouble bouncing back into the light, fun tone the film was trying to take.

Additionally, I don’t think the film was quite successful in smoothing out some issues that I suspect might originate with Ms. Christie’s novel (though I can’t say that for sure, as I have never read it).  One gets the sense that part of the appeal of the story was it’s being set in a “foreign” — read: exotic — location.  That’s a parochial pint of view, and one I find troubling.  One approach might have been to actually dig into the Egyptian setting, and to use the film to allow the audience to explore Egyptian culture, history, and people.  And yet the film doesn’t do that at all.  There are no Egyptian characters to speak of.  Some of the workers on the ship might be Egyptian, but the film ignores them entirely.  Poirot doesn’t even take a second to consider that any of them might be involved in the crimes.  It’s almost as though they’re total non-entities in the film.  At one point, there’s a tossed-off line about them leaving the ship for the night — so I thought at first that’d mean they were all gone for most of the events of the film — but then we see workers again serving food, and shutting the doors to the room at Poirot’s command, so they are still around.  The movie’s only real sequence set in an Egypt-specific setting (as opposed to the other generically opulent settings in which the film’s wealthy, mostly white characters interact) was in a somewhat cliche Egyptian tomb.  Increasing my discomfort: the sequence in which we first see Poirot in Egypt is one in which he is having an opulent breakfast, and then getting annoyed that he cannot have a completely uninterrupted view of the pyramids while he eats his meal.  Watching this rich white character act entitled to be able to sit and view this Egyptian historical site without being “bothered” to see or interact with any other human beings, including any actual Egyptians, was, for me, a very off-putting way to enter the story.

So, not everything in the film worked for me.  But I did nonetheless enjoy the opulent spectacle of it all, and the fun in watching this great cast at play.  I wouldn’t be adverse to getting a new installment of this series, with a new cast of stars, every few years…

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