Death on the Nile Movie Review: Kenneth Branagh Walks in the Same River Twice

A private party boat on a river cruise. Isolated, the revelers in their little bubble. The Cloister is a departure from the Agatha Christie novel on which it is based, but any relevance it might have for today is pure coincidence: director and star Kenneth Branagh’s second outing with Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot was originally slated for release in December 2019.

Death on the NileNot all of the many delays since then have been COVID-related, and further delays — permanent, even — wouldn’t have been unnecessary. I’m not that depressed Nile like I was on Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Expressbut I still have the same general question: Why?

Poirot, he is mysterious and unknowable like the Sphinx, right? Or maybe just his mustache…

The fundamental purpose of a film is to entertain, of course. The basic purpose of a murder mystery is to eliminate at least one person in a confusing way and make us worry about finding the killer. If we want to be pleasure-hungry, we might even want to care about the person getting murdered, maybe even the suspects too.

But it’s an hour later Nile – halfway through the movie – before someone is killed. If you haven’t read or remember the book, you probably spent most of that hour wondering who was going to be victimized, and maybe you don’t care much either: it There isn’t as much suspense in waiting for that death as the movie might wish there was. Although it’s not just one of those mysteries where everyone is a suspect, but also one where a bunch of people on screen are presumably courting murder.

You see, because the party boat has to celebrate the wedding of heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot: Wonder Woman 1984, Keeping Up With The Family) to cad Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer: Based on gender, Cars 3). He dumped his former fiancée, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), instantly after meeting Linnet, who also happens to be an old friend of Jacqueline’s. The happy couple are quite heartless, and the dumpee tracks them down, determined to destroy their happiness. (Hence the flight to the river. Jacqueline finds them anyway.) All three pretty much ask to be murdered.

Death on the Nile Gal Gadot Emma Mackey Armie Hammer
They are mean people but they seem incredible.

Joining them on the boat are a group of Linnet’s hangers, almost all austere people: Linnet’s godmother and the godmother’s nurse-mate are played by Jennifer Saunders respectively (Sing, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie) and Dawn French (Coraline, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), but the comedic pair are reformed here to be the exact opposite of funny. Russell Brand (The Fight (2019), Trolls) is a sad old flame from Linnet who is still in love with her and apparently tortures herself by agreeing to join this extremely long celebration of her nuptials. Linnet’s cousin and business manager (Ali Fazal: Victoria and Abdul, furious 7) keeps trying to get the new bride to sign boring old documents. Linnet’s Maid (Rose Leslie: Letters from Baghdad, Morgan) seems to resent his boss. A Lazy Acquaintance of Poirot (Tom Bateman: cold pursuit) and her mother (Annette Bening: Captain Marvel, 20th Century Women) may be less miserable than the others, but the only person having such fun as you would expect from such alleged festivities is Sophie Okonedo (hellboy war book) that jazz singer Linnet hired to entertain them. (Okonedo is pretty much solely responsible for the extra half star this movie earned me more than Orient-Express.) But the singer and entrepreneur’s niece (Letitia Wright: Avengers: Endgame, Ready Player One) fits perfectly with everyone’s pessimistic mood. Surely they’re all wondering what they’re doing there even before the murder.

It’s not really a party, that’s what I mean. It should be juicy! Salacious! We should revel in all the bubbling jealousies and simmering resentments! Maybe we could do that in a longer version of this tale, about eight episodes. But there are too many characters here for us to know of any. And yet, the film decides it needs to spend time on an extended opening sequence that serves as an origin story for *check notes* Poirot’s outrageous facial hair.

Death on the Nile Sophie Okonedo
The best reason to see this? The always fabulous Sophie Okonedo.

The film looks great, sure, its 1930s elegance is good and good. Except it reeks of unexamined colonialism – there’s not a single Egyptian character here – which leaves a sour taste. But returning screenwriter Michael Green (Jungle Cruise, The Call of the Wild) decided to insert what I can only imagine is intended to be of modern relevance via complicated interracial relationships that didn’t exist in the book and seem extremely anachronistic, certainly in the way that these motifs are simultaneously important to plot and yet dismissed far too easily for The Era. (One aspect of how this unfolds accidentally casts Poirot as a hypocrite, and possibly a racist, even though the film insists he’s a nobly honorable man.)

Murder on the Orient Express featured a colorblind cast that was not commented on, which might have been the better option here too. With one foot in his fantasy escape and the other in what he hopes is an anchored reality, the there that is barely there in Death on the Nile is everywhere.

see also:
• Review of the film Murder on the Orient Express: strangers on a train

more movies like this:
• Knives out [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV]
• Mr. Holmes [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV]

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