It sure took Kenneth Branagh’s follow-up to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express long enough to arrive in cinemas. Over four years long, to be exact. Death on the Nile was supposed to be set for December 2019 but got delayed several times ever since, with one of the major factors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ironically, the film itself reflects the aforementioned long period, particularly the way actor-director Kenneth Branagh takes his time getting to the main event. And that event in question refers to the death of a character, which leads to Branagh’s Hercule Poirot’s elaborate investigation. But before all the deducing, possible suspects and such, we have to sit through a needlessly protracted first act.
With the exception of the black-and-white prologue detailing Poirot’s own backstory and yes, the origin of his famous and impossible-to-ignore moustache, Death on the Nile moves as leisurely as possible. We learn that Poirot observes the three particular characters while dining in a nightclub. There’s Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), who is madly in love with Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). They have a great time dancing on the floor and so do Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ overall camerawork, which glides around the couple’s passionate body movements.
Then along came the third character named Linett Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), who happens to be Jacqueline’s best friend and a wealthy socialite too. You see, Jacqueline and Simon are supposed to get married soon but the moment she introduces Linett to her fiance, everything is about to change.
Six months later, it was Linett who ended up marrying Simon in Egypt and Jacqueline isn’t happy about it. Linett and Simon are not comfortable with Jacqueline stalking them wherever they go and the newlywed couple turns to Poirot for help.
The film took an hour or so for Branagh to set up the plot and of course, establish each of the characters other than Jacqueline, Simon and Linett. This includes Poirot’s friend, Buoc (Tom Bateman, reprising his role from the 2017 film) and Buoc’s widowed mother and painter, Euphemia (Annette Bening). There’s a doctor (Russell Brand’s Linus Windlesham), a renowned jazz singer (Sophie Okonedo’s Salome Otterbourne) and her niece-manager (Letitia Wright’s Rosalie). As for the rest of them, there is Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), who is Linnet’s cousin and lawyer; socialite Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse-companion, Mrs Bowers (Dawn French); and finally, a maid named Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie).
Despite granted a bigger budget this time around, Death on the Nile is just as visually inconsistent as the 2017 film. Branagh still relies heavily on CGI for the background shots and even the pyramids, which look disappointingly tacky as if the special effects were rendered ten years ago. Frankly, it’s kind of wasted to see Branagh’s otherwise inspiring decision to insist on shooting his film on 65mm similar to his Murder on the Orient Express. But it hardly matters anyway with most of the digital fakeries throughout the film.
If you can get past the flaws, Branagh doesn’t forget what you are supposed to be here for. And that is, the old-fashioned whodunit once the first death occurred aboard the S.S. Karnak steamer. It’s both reasonably fun and thrilling to watch as Poirot starts deducing and interviewing every guest on board. The only major downside is that the mystery lacks the same engaging piecing-the-puzzle moments seen in Murder on the Orient Express.
The all-star ensemble is a mixed bag. Kenneth Branagh brings an added level of poignancy to his famous Belgian detective character as Hercule Poirot, thanks to the backstory earlier in the film. Gal Gadot shines as the beautiful socialite Linett Ridgeway while relative newcomer Emma Mackey (TV’s Sex Education) almost steals the show as the jealous ex-fiancée, Jacqueline de Bellefort. Sophie Okonedo delivers a solid supporting turn as jazz singer Salome Otterbourne and the same also goes to Letitia Wright.
The rest of the cast, however, aren’t given enough screen time to flex their respective acting muscles and it’s a pity to see someone as talented as Annette Bening, who clearly deserves better than the underwritten role she had in this film.