Taking a slightly more serious, but no less stylized, approach to the crime-solving adventures of Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (played as he was in the Murder on the Orient Express by director Kenneth Branagh), Death on the Nile follows Poirot on an Egyptian vacation, where he gets wrapped up (perhaps not by accident) in the search for a murderer. The suspect has killed someone an a private yacht hired by a photogenic couple (Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer) for their honeymoon and shared only with a select few guests. Based on the Agatha Christie novel and adapted by Michael Green, Poirot seems to take this particular case to heart. He knows a few of the suspects personally, and the overreaching theme of true love is one that he has known—and lost—to such a degree when he was a younger man that he has never allowed himself to love again.
Strangely enough, the film beings with an origin story—not of Poirot the detective, but for his legendary mustache. We see a de-aged, non-mustached Branagh as a young soldier in World War I providing knowledge that helps save a great number of his fellow soldiers as they charge the German lines under cover of gas bombs. We find out not only why he wears a mustache but from whence its complex design got its inspiration. It seems very silly but ties into his story of true love quite closely. And while he does not allow himself the pleasure of a companion, he does seem inspired by watching those around him fall in love.
At a nightclub, he spots Hammer’s Simon Doyle on the arm of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). Shortly thereafter, Doyle meets Jacqueline’s best friend Linnet Ridgeway (Gadot), and before long she and Doyle are dancing together. Several moths later, he finds himself in Egypt at the invite of the newly married Doyle and Ridgeway. He runs into an old friend in Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), also guests of the couple at this getaway and private boat trip, which is almost ruined when Jacqueline arrives (as she often does, apparently, just to unsettled things wherever the couple goes). The boat trip is meant to be a sure-fire way to keep Jacqueline away from the festivities, but she still manages to crash the party, shortly after a giant stone almost crushes the couple while they explore a temple.
Rounding out the impressive cast is blues singer and entertainment for the cruise Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo); her niece (and an old classmate of Linnet’s), Rosalie (Letitia Wright), who begins a secret affair with Bouc; Linnet’s maid Louise (Rose Leslie); a socialist socialite Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse Bowers (Dawn French, thus re-teaming the great comedy duo French & Saunders); Linnett’s financial advisor Katchadourian (Ali Fazal); and her ex-lover, Dr. Windlesham (genuine standout Russell Brand). As is the custom in these stories, a murder is committed and every cast member, however unlikely, is not only a suspect but also is given a motive and grilled relentlessly by Poirot, even if he doesn’t really suspect them.
The breathtaking desert landscapes and ornate temples, pyramids, and even the boat itself all add to the majesty of Death on the Nile, which seems to take great delight in sullying the good names of its characters. We’re able to watch Poirot perform his version of eating the rich, all of whom seems to admire him for doing so, even when he points the finger at them, as if it’s an honor just to be accused by someone of his stature. There are actually a small handful of deaths in the movie, narrowing the suspect list slightly and resulting in Poirot taking each death as an affront to his crime-solving abilities. Branagh finds ways to inject small doses of humor into Death on the Nile, but the proceedings never get silly, as they did in Orient Express.
There is something genuinely hypnotic and intoxicating about existing at a level of glamor this elevated. From the production design to the costumes, everything feels fine-tuned and polished, and then in comes Poirot to make everything messy. That doesn’t stop the film from being overly long and taking too much time to get to the first murder, but I also didn’t mind establishing a few traits and details about every character before things get bloody. I count this as a step up from Orient Express and could easily watch the movie again just to take in the finer points of the production. I didn’t think it was that difficult to spot the killer and the motive, but those facts seem almost superfluous in Christie stories—unlike the true story of how a mustache became the mustache.
The film opens theatrically this Friday, with preview screening Thursday night.
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