I never expected to see a cinematic adaptation of an Agatha Christie murder mystery that begins with an origin story of Hercule Poirot’s mustache, but here we are.
Stately, sumptuous and suspiciously clever, Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile follows largely in the narrative pattern that the director and screenwriter Michael Green established in Murder on the Orient Express (2017): the sets are exquisitely detailed, the costuming is gloriously glamorous, and the hair is perfectly coifed. And the special effects are as good as they can possibly be, except that the entire production displays an air of unbelievable extravagance.
I suspect that Agatha Christie aficionados and modern moviegoers have one thing in common: a willingness to suspend disbelief. Under that assumption, Death on the Nile is wonderfully entertaining, if a bit bleak in its depiction of humankind.
Kenneth Branagh returns as the world-famous detective Hercule Poirot, now on vacation in the Middle East during the late 1930s, as war is brewing on the horizon. Known for his great powers of deductive intelligence, even as a young soldier in The Great War, Poirot has become celebrated for his investigatory skills in London, where six months previously, he bore witness to the birth of a love affair in public.
The love affair between the foppish Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and the wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) broke the heart of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), who was both Simon’s intended bride and Linnet’s best friend. After a hasty courtship, the two have married, and wish to celebrate their love by inviting a motley group of people along on their honeymoon trip, cruising the Nile River.
From the title, we know that murder will occur; from the presence of Hercule Poirot, we know that everyone is a suspect. It is only a question of who and when.
Once the deadly deed is done late one night, the film plays out to the accompaniment of a ticking clock. As in Murder on the Orient Express, the crime must be solved before the large moving vessel can reach its destination when the sun rises.
Rather than a cup of tea and warm milk, Death on the Nile serves up a large mug of hot coffee that gradually cools and is continually topped off with another cup of red herrings. The cast members, including Tom Bateman, Letitia Wright, Sophie Okonedo, Rose Leslie and Annette Bening, look fabulous as they swing in and out of the plot as Poirot investigates in dogged, logical, methodical fashion.
As he appears to turn his sharp eye of insight on first one suspect, and then another, the busy backgrounds swiftly change, like colliding carousels in the night. Since I am not a detective, nor a writer of mysteries, the increasingly complicated motivations became difficult for me to follow until I gave up.
Maybe the biggest lesson to learn from Death on the Nile is that you are not as smart as Hercule Poirot. And maybe he isn’t, either.
The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, February 11, via 20th Century Studios. For more information about the film, visit the official site.