In 2017, Kenneth Branagh directed the opulent Murder on the Orient Express, the first in a planned series based on the Agatha Christie novels. Now he has brought the sequel, Death on the Nile, to the screen, reprising his role as Hercule Poirot, with Tom Bateman returning as Poirot’s friend Bouc.
The film opens in the 1914 WWI trenches of Belgium, where a young Poirot suggests a clever plan to secretly advance on the enemy, but it is ultimately foiled when the Squadron Captain trips a wire. What happens then gives us not just an explanation for those famous “moustaches”, but begins an introduction to the inner Poirot and his early romantic heartbreak. This departure from Christie’s style by Screenwriter Michael Green is a profound difference in tone for Death on the Nile.
Now it is 1937, where we catch up with Poirot in London, where he enjoys jazz/blues singer Salome Otterbourne (a wonderful turn by Sophie Okonedo) and observes the odd interplay between three other nightclub patrons: a woman introducing her lover to her best friend, a dance, a shifting of the heart, and destiny’s hand at work.
Six weeks later, we find our detective in Egypt, ostensibly on vacation, where he encounters his old friend Bouc, meets a group of outlandish types accompanying a young couple on their honeymoon trip along the Nile, and is asked to join the party. The newlyweds, wealthy Linnet and handsome Simon (emoted with arguably overplayed relish by Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer) are being stalked and spooked by Simon’s scorned lover, Jackie de Bellefort, who is performed to menacing effect by Emma Mackey. Also along, among others, are the chanteuse and her niece/manager, Linnet’s aristocratic doctor, and Simon’s artist mother (a truly quirky Annette Bening). Russell Brand is a standout as the doctor. Leticia Wright turns in a hostile performance as Bouc’s love interest.
We set sail, and this is where the fun of a Christie murder mystery really begins: someone is shot, another is found dead, everyone is a suspect, alibis abound, lies are told, and even the Egyptian scenery can’t compete with this guessing game. Still, the Nile is impressive, in spite of being shot in England. The exquisite period costuming, the music, and the production values both in the houses, hotels and on-ship all add to the charm of the world-between-the-wars.
Hercule Poirot is a more deeply fleshed out character in this version of the thrice-filmed novel. Branagh has taken a leap here, which may not please traditionalist Christie fans, but which gives the actor-director more room to maneuver or manipulate. Death on the Nile was completed in 2019, but due to the pandemic, as well as the legal and media troubles of a couple of the actors, its release was held until 2022.
But now… the ship’s afloat, the game’s afoot, the sphinx isn’t talking, the champagne and intrigue flow. And despite some uneven performances, and a wee bit of scenery-chewing, those shouldn’t deter one from the familiar cozy pleasures of this cinematic cruise with Poirot and his trusty “little grey cells”.
For KSQD’s The Film Gang, this is Maureen O’Connell