I was looking forward to seeing Twentieth Century Studios’ new film Death on the Nile. It’s based on the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie and is described by the studio as “a daring mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh about the emotional chaos and deadly consequences triggered by obsessive love.” In my teens and twenties, I devoured Agatha Christie mysteries and I was continuously shocked and delighted when the killer or killers were revealed. That was her genius, delighting and frustrating us, but always leaving us with an appetite for the next story. I also saw a few of the film adaptations of her books. I may have seen the 1978 version of Death on the Nile, but that would have been during college and my memories of those days are…um…hazy.
Anyway, many of those adaptations were quite good. But it isn’t easy to make a murder mystery work for today’s audiences. We know all the tricks and we are a jaded bunch. So, while Death on the Nile is not a bad film, it also isn’t a great film, especially for today’s audiences. It has the basic ingredients: a good story, a fine director, a talented cast, and impressive design work. But it has a couple of problems.
For one thing, Kenneth Branagh, bless him, directs and stars in the film. I’m not a fan of directors directing themselves in leading roles. It can work occasionally, and Branagh himself did it brilliantly in Henry V. But I think it can have the effect of short-changing the production, including the character development of the other actors. In the case of Death on the Nile, this appears to be the case. There is also a lack of focus in the vision of the piece, and a caricature-esque feel permeating the other characters that I attribute to Branagh not being as attentive to his role as director as he was to his role as actor.
Another reason for the awkwardness of the film is the screenplay which appears to be writing by someone on overly familiar with the genre. This isn’t the case since writer Michael Green also penned the screenplay for the film “Murder on the Orient Express” also directed by and starring Branagh. I can’t speak to the quality of that film having never seen it, but since he has at least one moderately successful murder mystery under his belt, it’s odd that in this film, its sequel, is word play is so clunky. Exposition is the bane of every writer, of course, but in this film it was pretty painful at times. It is as if Green merely read a kind of paint-by-numbers book about “How to Write Dialogue for Characters in a 1930s Murder Mystery”.
But I can’t say how much blame to lay at Green’s feet and how much to lay at Branagh’s because the pace was also a big problem. The film moves slowly. Very, very slowly. The dialogue is filled with too many pregnant pauses for no discernable reason. Pair that with the multiple long, loving looks by the camera at the cast, the boat, the Nile, the boat, the scenery, the boat…there are times when the action grinds to a halt and you just want to get out and push it like Humphrey Bogart did to his boat in The African Queen. However, to be fair, everything moves more quickly in the second half of the film.
The cast is made up of several talented actors, and the individual performances are, overall, quite good, even if, as a company, they fail to gel. Branagh as Hercule Poirot is the brightest spot, but that is not necessarily a good thing if, as I stated earlier, it is to the detriment of the other cast members. But Tom Bateman, Armie Hammer, and Letitia Wright still manage to impress, and have no difficulty holding your attention when they were on the screen, generating a humanity largely missing in the other performances. Of course, Annette Benning is terrific, but she really doesn’t get a chance to shine until the film is nearly over.
Something of a surprise, though, is Gal Gadot, who doesn’t sparkle as one might expect as the beautiful heiress Linnet Ridgeway. She looks the part, but her performance is flat, and decidedly non-remarkable. I never knew what she was feeling unless she said it. I was impressed with Gadot in Wonder Woman (the first film, not the unfortunate sequel). But, here, she is almost entirely ornamental.
The film looks and sounds great, and the production design team did well. Thanks to the costume, makeup, and hair folks, all the characters look marvelous in their period attire and perfectly suited to their roles in the lives of their characters. Gadot and Wright, in particular, both look like they were made to wear the gorgeous styles from that period. The sets are quite remarkable, though there are some moments where the scenery looks green-screened.
The score is splendid, thanks to Patrick Doyle, who never disappoints. On the one hand, he crafts lush, and a faintly jazzy, musical backdrop complementing the displays of opulence and decadence. On the other, he lays out melancholy, dark, and, at times, frantic moments underscoring the desperation of more than one of the boat’s passengers. Someday, I’d love to watch the movie with just the music playing.
Despite its attributes, Death of the Nile just doesn’t quite work. It would have been more enjoyable if the filmmakers had not taken it so seriously and had sprinkled the dialogue with the occasional droll one-liner and a bit more self-awareness. Poirot was allowed a number of those moments in the film, and there was one laugh-out-loud one-liner delivered by another character (you’ll know it when you hear it). At that moment in the theater, you could hear the relief in the laughter of the audience. Even the darkest film noir or murder mysteries of the 30s, 40s, and 50s had healthy servings of humorous bits and snappy dialogue. Coincidentally, the thriller Dead Again, which was directed by Branagh and starred himself and his then wife, Emma Thompson, fit the bill perfectly. It’s a clever, and funny, mystery that keeps you guessing.
So, should you go see Death on the Nile? Going out to the movies is, after all, something you tend to think twice about these days. If you decide to sit in a darkened theater with mask on and fingers crossed that none of the other audience members has used a fake vaccination card to get in, while sneaking popcorn bites and soda sips between raising and lowering your mask, you hope that the movie is worth all of that.
But I say, go ahead and see it. It may not be the best movie you will see this year, but it’s nice to go to a movie occasionally that has no gory violence or unnecessary swearing and/or nudity, that also happens to be for grown-ups. It is exquisite to look at and you can take your parents or grand-parents, who might have grown up on movies like this, and who I am sure will thoroughly enjoy it. I do have a suggestion, though. Make it a fun night out with friends or family (with masks, of course). Afterwards, everyone can go back to the house for a game of Clue.
Death on the Nile opens in U.S. theaters February 11, 2022.
Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot’s Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamer turns into a terrifying search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is tragically cut short. Set against an epic landscape of sweeping desert vistas and the majestic Giza pyramids, this tale of unbridled passion and incapacitating jealousy features a cosmopolitan group of impeccably dressed travelers, and enough wicked twists and turns to leave audiences guessing until the final, shocking denouement.
Based on the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie, “Death on the Nile” is a daring mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh about the emotional chaos and deadly consequences triggered by obsessive love. Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot’s Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamer turns into a terrifying search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is tragically cut short. Set against an epic landscape of sweeping desert vistas and the majestic Giza pyramids, this tale of unbridled passion and incapacitating jealousy features a cosmopolitan group of impeccably dressed travelers, and enough wicked twists and turns to leave audiences guessing until the final, shocking denouement. “Death on the Nile” reunites the filmmaking team behind 2017’s global hit “Murder on the Orient Express,” and stars five-time Academy Award nominee Kenneth Branagh as the iconic detective Hercule Poirot. He is joined by an all-star cast of suspects, including: Tom Bateman, four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders and Letitia Wright. “Death on the Nile” is written by Michael Green, adapted from Christie’s novel, and is produced by Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Kenneth Branagh, p.g.a., and Judy Hofflund, p.g.a., with Mark Gordon, Simon Kinberg, Matthew Jenkins, James Prichard and Mathew Prichard serving as executive producers.