There are certainly raised eyebrows and dropped jaws to be enjoyed in Kenneth Branagh’s long-delayed Death on the Nile. With all the finery on full blast, the twists and turns are what sparkle more for the audiences on the edge of their seats with this Agatha Christie-sourced murder mystery. Yet, much like the line from another remake, 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair, “It’s not about the money. You like the chase.” In such a pursuit is where the most fascinating lodestone of this gem collection emerges to be Branagh himself.
In his second screen appearance as the famed private investigator Hercule Poirot, both the camera and our eyes are magnetized to Kenneth Branagh. There are drop dead gorgeous and expressive characters gallivanting all around, and we can’t pull away from the diminutive observer with that prominent mustache and those impeccable suits. Watch him in character.
Moreover, watch him scrutinizing those moving parts going on in his presence. Watch his eyes squint then dance. He can console and scold when necessary. Watch him physically fold into the crowd with his small stature as the voyeur and then rise to the occasion with every inch of his intelligence and fortitude as the man-of-action. You can’t get anything past Hercule Poirot and, for that matter, Kenneth Branagh either. Sure, this is a filmmaker showing off and calling his own number as a performer, but that is because he can and he should.
After a brief but telling World War I prologue sheds monochromatic light on the tragic origins of the future world-famous detective, the present day of 1937 leads Poirot to intersect with a high society love triangle while on holiday in Egypt. Wannabe American playboy Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer of Call Me By Your Name) has danced and thrusted his way to capturing the affections of the rich socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot), but it took him discarding his hot and heavy engagement to Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey of Sex Education).
The madly passionate and extremely bitter Miss de Bellefort has stalked the couple for months through their whirlwind courtship, lavish wedding, and now their Egyptian honeymoon. In an effort to shake their tail, the newlyweds have commissioned the S.S. Karnak river cruise boat for their haughty entourage of family, friends, entertainers, paid help, and hanger-on acquaintances, which come to include Poirot and the rest of the esteemed ensemble.
Linnet feels targeted by Jacqueline. The new Mrs. Doyle is frazzled to the point where she fears her safety around everyone, even her longest friends and closest confidantes. The envious greed for her vast fortune multiplies the fear and the cross hairs she feels on her back, which leads to the trailer-featured line of “When you have money, no one is really your friend,” from Gal Gadot. This is also a weaker trait of the movie. Gadot’s performance to muster tangible drama does not come close to matching her perfect external shell of glamour. Sophie Okonedo’s singer, Tom Bateman’s returning Buoc, and Annette Bening playing his mother are better standouts in the cast.
Speaking of showy glitz, Death on the Nile spared no expense in production values. Everyone looks like a million bucks adorned in costumes designed by Paco Delgado (The Danish Girl) and Joban Jit Singh that employ both color and form to make each character distinctive. The stark white-and-gray trimmings and infinite layers of beveled glass that construct that glorious steamer are second to only Titanic’s sea-faring set for opulence and detail. Production designer Jim Clay (Children of Men) deserves to have an Oscar nomination reserved for him next year for this artistic achievement. Branagh’s frequent cinematographer-of-choice Haris Zambarloukos (Cinderella, Belfast) captures every shard of on-screen sheen and shine with playful and encircling camerawork that slithers through this movie’s increasing danger like hunting cobra.
Once the catalyst murder occurs, naturally everyone is a suspect and the body count grows. Poirot and company learn very quickly that people kill for love more than money. The love that begets violence is a fierce love that knows no bounds of wealth or privilege. When the dutiful genius begins to hypothesize the “why” that accompanies the lying, hiding, and killing, the quotient keeps coming back to love. It is carnal simplicity and a madness anyone can understand while not condoning, even the great Hercule Poirot.
Nitpicking viewers are bound to build comparisons between Branagh’s take on Death on the Nile and the source novel and previous film adaptations. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) expanded outward from Christie with layers of backstory and emphasized the dread over the dandy of it all. That heightened suspense sharpens what could have been foppish celebrity dress-up dinner theater. Once again, you cannot get anything past Kenneth Branagh. As an astute and stylish filmmaker, he used his own instincts and ingenuity where he saw fit to amplify what lacked to make a compelling movie experience for a new generation.