By Thomas Marin // Staff Writer
Kenneth Branagh’s second adaptation of the iconic Hercule Poirot begins with the backstory of his equally iconic mustache. Set in the trenches of WWI, the flashback is used to present us with Poirot’s past lover, Katherine, whose memory will haunt the detective as he resolves his latest case. It is all about ‘love’ in “Death on the Nile,” a consistently enjoyable film despite its lack of subtlety and somewhat artificial staging. It is significantly elevated by Branagh’s affective treatment of the material and its nuanced performance as Poirot and the work of some of its supporting cast.
Set against the backdrop of Egypt in the late 1930s, the film follows Poirot and a group of diverse socialites on vacation. At the head of this group are Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), who are celebrating their honeymoon, and escaping from Doyle’s ex-fiancé, Jackie Bellefort (Emma Mackey).
Their guests include Linnet’s lifelong maid Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie), Linnet’s communist godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her dedicated nurse Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French), jazz singer Salome Otterbourne and her niece (and old Linnet’s classmate) Rosalie (Letitia Wright). They are also joined by Poirot’s friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his mother, Euphimia (Annette Bening), a renowned painter.
The greatest problem of the film, besides the non-existent chemistry of the newlyweds, is the bombastic, old-fashioned approach of the direction. Things like the great pyramids, the unnecessarily packed salons and lobbies, and the impossibly-well synchronized crew of the boat call attention to themselves in the worst way possible (the distant, poorly realized CGI doesn’t help either).
Branagh is no stranger to putting on a visually striking spectacle, but in this case, it plays against him. Christie’s mysteries are not quickly-paced epics. They need space to breathe and gain a sense of its characters (which she introduced in her novels at length and enigmatically) and the mysteries that surround them. As a result, the dramatic weight of some moments is entirely erased by the next one until the climax of the film ends, and the audience can finally register the effect of the events.
However, there is no denying the affection Branagh feels for the material. His approach is supposed to be enthralling, and his performance as Poirot exudes charm and tenderness (and a bit of madness, of course). His often unexplored love life is explored here, which is refreshing and adds a different range of emotions to the character.
At the center of material so focused on the shapes and mishaps of love, there should be at least a solid romance. At last, Hammer and Gadot don’t quite sell us their newlywed romance, and other possible couples don’t get enough screen time or development. The supporting cast is a mixed bag, some of them are very forgettable, and others bring necessary life to scenes that would otherwise feel mundane or flat. Sophie Okonedo, as the captivating Salome, is particularly radiant.
“Death on the Nile” is a beautifully shot, entertaining, and hazy film. It has the kind of composition and presentation that will remind you of a 90s epic, and its unexpected intimacy is mostly squandered by melodrama and the needs of the plot. The result is a crowded, unreflective experience.