In the interests of doing other things with my free time, this review will be written in approximately thirty minutes. Timer starts…now!
Kenneth Branagh’s sequel is sumptuously shot, gorgeously cinematic and incredibly performed, though is a little slow out of the harbour
Starring Tom Bateman, Kenneth Branagh, Annette Bening, Russel Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, and Letitia Wright
There’s a reason that Agatha Christie is known as the Queen of Crime. Despite many outdated aspects of her fiction, her immense contributions towards the murder mystery genre redefined literature. The runaway success of 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express signals that Christie’s intricate plotting is just as appealing to a modern audience as it was when Christie wrote the novel in 1934. As set up by the close of Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh’s sequel tackles Christie’s Death on the Nile. It trades its bleak, sweeping alpine vistas for the warm, sandy glow of Egypt, but it also delivers just as star studded a cast as its predecessor.
As most audience members will recognise, a good murder mystery has the suspects. While some suspects might initially seem more likely to be the culprit, this inevitably changes, as each suspect has a mysterious past, meaning that they all could have a motive. Seemingly, they also always seem to have an alibi, which makes it trickier for our detective (in this case, Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot). This, of course, all comes to a head once our inappropriately attractive and glamorous collection of characters are placed in an inescapable location for the murder to take place – just to eliminate the possibility of an extraneous human being being responsible.
So there the characters stand, with one – or more – of them with blood on their hands, trapped in the same place as a killer, desperately hoping that they are not next. Fortunately, Poirot is the best detective in the business – able to solve any crime, yet not particularly good at pre-empting any. Instead, he has to let at least a couple of other characters bite the bullet before the classic “I know who did it” scene, in which Poirot goes around the room, accusing pretty much everybody of murder – just for the theatricality of it – before actually revealing the criminal in their midst.
If you consider those spoilers, I would like to remind you that Dame Christie’s first Poirot novel was released 102 years ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident that there is a formulaic structure to almost all murder mystery novels and it’s easier to embrace it. Most of the fun of a good murder mystery, in fact, is piecing together the clues and trying to solve the riddle before the characters do. It’s perhaps easier to achieve this when the story itself isn’t the same age as an octogenarian, but at least the ending twist of Death on the Nile is less famous than Murder on the Orient Express’.
Death on the Nile finds our Belgian genius watching jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) at a London club as excited, lovestruck Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) announces to her friend Linnet (Gal Gadot) that she is to be married to Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and to seek Linnet’s help at getting Simon a job managing her estate.
Six weeks later, however, as Poirot runs into his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) and mother Euphemia (Annette Bening) who soon introduces them to honeymooning friends Linnet and Simon. Travelling with them are Linnet’s maid Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie), who resents Linnet for reasons of mysterious backstory; Salome and her niece and manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright), who appears to be Linnet’s only true friend; Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), Linnet’s communist godmother with her nurse Mrs Bowers (Dawn French); Linnet’s cousin Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), who is in charge of Linnet’s will; and an ex-beau of Linnet’s Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand).
Interloping amongst them, dripping with venom, comes Jackie, desperate to win Simon back from Linnet’s devilishly wealthy clutches. Even though Jackie outright confesses to Poirot that she has murderous intentions on the young couple, Poirot decides that it is not a case for him to interfere with, and lets Simon and Linnet know, advising them to call off their honeymoon.
Instead, in order to escape Jackie’s stalking, the honeymoon party starts to voyage down the Nile on the S.S. Karnak. Eventually, a murder actually takes place and Poirot can do what he does best: sit down in interview rooms and ask uncomfortable questions until he decides that he has no more uncomfortable questions to ask – even though he sort of knew the answers he was going to receive in the first place. That’s also not to mention the frankly unnecessary inclusion of elements of Poirot’s backstory, involving serving during World War One and suffering facial scars, necessitating his gaudy moustache and accidentally killing his wife to be. This is mainly just there to make the themes of “accidental consequences” and “how far would you go for love?” abundantly clear to the audience.
Once the movie actually makes it to the murder, what ensues is a veritable thrill. Vibrating with suspense and bouncing from suspect to suspect at a rate of knots, with characters getting bumped off around each corner, the tension is at an all time high. This doesn’t necessarily excuse the agonisingly slow build-up however, which almost certainly could have been condensed without sacrificing the integrity of the mystery at its heart.
Throughout the film, there is stunning cinematography on offer. With brilliant, sweeping movements, this gives the movie a sense of grandeur, which is aided by the glamorous sets and costumes and the gorgeous ambiance created by Patrick Doyle’s tense, atmospheric score. The shots of the glittering Nile are nothing short of location porn, though the film does suffer with its reliance on green screen at key moments, looking painfully amateurish and woefully fake.
All of the cast are firing on all cylinders. Perhaps it has escaped Branagh’s notice, but Poirot is the least interesting or notable amongst them, and is chiefly not the source of appeal within his own story, regardless of how many tragic backstories he receives. Starkly captivating, however, is Emma Mackey as Jacqueline, managing to paint a rejected, scorned woman in astonishing three dimensions. Truly a star turn, she is more than demonstrating her longevity beyond Netflix’s Sex Education.
Gal Gadot is also surprisingly good as Linnet, giving her an elegance and poise that Gadot herself is never seen without. Letitia Wright is also a highlight as fiercely unwavering and loyal Rosalie. French and Saunders, in addition to pulling off a wonderful dramatic performance also manage to inject some light humour into the film without detracting from the plot.
Ultimately, Death on the Nile is a triumph. Visually stunning with a fantastic cast, it suffers from taking uncomfortably long to get to the promised murder, but makes up for it once it gets there.
Death on the Nile was released in cinemas on February 11, 2022.