The Man With the ‘Stache is Back
DIRECTED BY KENNETH BRANAGH / 2022
Before I sat down to watch Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile I went back and reread my review of John Guillermin’s version from 1978. While I thought the ’78 version had a terrific cast, and a potentially great Poirot in Peter Ustinov, I thought that the film’s pace was terribly slow. It was over-long (140 minutes!), and deathly dull. In that review I mentioned Branagh’s upcoming adaptation (which at the time we surmised was just a few months away), and hoped it would solve its predecessor’s problems. I was thrilled to discover that it had.
I was a fan of Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one, since the movie was a surprise hit. And why shouldn’t it have been? With a cast full of terrific character actors, a twisty plot supplied by a master of the mystery genre, sumptuous visuals, clever direction, and Branagh as the film’s center as the world renowned detective Hercule Poirot. Branagh’s portrayal was equal parts vanity, foolishness, and melancholy and it worked perfectly. Though the cast isn’t as strong overall this time around, Branagh has duplicated what worked for Murder and the result is a solid whodunnit.
Death on the Nile begins in London, at a nightclub where Poirot has come, presumably to listen to some blues music performed by singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda). No… that’s not actually right. The movie actually begins on the battlefields of World War I, where we meet a young, fresh-faced Poirot. Shot in black and white (’cause, you know, the past), the prolog shows how Poirot uses his budding deductive prowess to save his battalion from heavy losses in an attack, meets his future true love, and decides to grow his fabulous mustache. Yep, the mustache gets an origin story. It’s a curious choice to begin the movie this way. Happily, the choice does eventually pay off.
But back to the present, where Poirot witnesses Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) introduce her new fiance, Simon (Armie Hammer) to her best friend Linnet (Gal Gadot). When Poirot next meets the trio in Egypt, a mere six weeks later, Simon has left Jacqueline, married Linnet, and now Jacqueline stalks the pair on their honeymoon. It’s not long before someone turns up dead.
Of course, this being based on an Agatha Christie novel, it turns out there’s no shortage of suspects, even as some of these other suspects begin turning up dead themselves. And, true to form, it eventually ends up with everyone in a locked room, while Poirot lays out the case and exposes the true culprit behind these crimes.
The other folk along for the cruise up the river Nile include Letitia Wright, as Salome’s adopted daughter and stage manager; Tom Bateman as Bouc, an old friend of Poirot’s; Annette Bening as Bouc’s mother; Jennifer Saunders as Linnet’s wealthy godmother and Dawn French as her nurse; Russel Brand as Windlesham, a doctor, and Linette’s ex-fiancee; Ali Fazel as Linette’s lawyer; and Rose Leslie as Linette’s maid. The list of suspects is streamlined from that in the novel (and 1978 adaptation), and changed around a little bit to allow for a more diverse cast.
While I miss the likes of Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, and Michelle Pfeiffer, the actors here are all fine (even if some of them have had their share of… let’s be charitable and call it online misadventures since the film wrapped, which might threaten to overshadow the movie itself). Gadot is frequently targeted as a bad actress. Is she normally? I don’t know, but here she’s pretty good (kudos to the director, I suppose). She’s always been a very earnest performer, a quality which has served her well as Wonder Woman. It serves her well here too. When she confesses to Poirot that, even though she is surrounded by people she has known all her life, she doesn’t feel safe among any of them, she shows a vulnerability that humanizes and grounds her character.
But Branagh’s the real star here, both in front of and behind the camera. It’s his show from the start, and deservedly so. He makes for an excellent Poirot, and clearly loves the material he’s working with. Death on the Nile is a splendid followup to Murder on the Orient Express, and given Branagh’s involvement, it’s no mystery why.