Death on the Nile: Review
Death on the Nile Synopsis: Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot’s (Kenneth Branagh) Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamer turns into a terrifying search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is tragically cut short.
The lingering intrigue built inside whodunit narratives is taking center stage in Hollywood as of late. Smash success stories on the big (Knives Out) and small (After Party and Only Murders in the Building) screens continue to reinvent mystery narrative’s traditional roots into clever new packages.
While many filmmakers try to reinvent the mystery wheel, Kenneth Branagh comfortably plays to the genre’s old-school roots as the director and star of Death on the Nile. As a follow-up to the sincere yet bumbling Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile finds Branagh disappearing further into Agatha Christie’s idiosyncratic detective Hercules Poirot.
Orient Express displayed flashes of promise, showcasing lavish old-school aesthetics and an all-star cast before reducing its mystery to melodramatic theatrics. Even Branagh’s energetic performance of Poirot felt noticeably off, with the actor struggling to convey the nuance inside Poirot’s colorful design. In comparison, Death on the Nile serves as a welcomed improvement from its lackluster predecessor.
Branagh displays far more poise in his onscreen and behind-the-camera roles. After Murder dragged audiences into the dredges of oft-putting CGI and clumsy framing, Death on the Nile embraces an opulent streak fitting of its first-class protagonists. Branagh and Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos bask in the extravagant excess of their socialite protagonists while also painting the Egyptian setting as a fitting canvas for intrigue. The sweltering heat of desert lands and ominous mystery surrounding each towering pyramid helps paint a setting bustling with an intense atmosphere around every corner.
Death on the Nile comes to life as its slow-burn narrative unfolds. Orient Express screenwriter Michael Green wisely injects human drama into the mix compared to its muted predecessor, centering his latest narrative around the steaming emotions of a contentious love triangle. The choice allows Poirot’s latest case to take on far more engaging connotations for viewers to sink their teeth into, with the life-affirming joys and tragic despair of romance woven skillfully into each narrative arc.
Branagh and Green balance moments of melodramatic camp and dramatic heft with an assured touch, possessing a self-aware understanding of Christie’s genre pastiche without smugly winking at its audience. I also enjoyed their inclusion of some actual backstory for Poirot. A few opening flashbacks depict the OCD detective as a sharp intellect who ultimately fell victim to heartbreak. Giving some perspective to Poirot’s quirks helps morph him into an engaging protagonist to follow, which is a huge step up from his grating presence in the original.
The all-star cast further elevates the proceedings. Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer serve charisma in droves as well-matched lovers with a nefarious past, while strong supporting work from Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, and Emma McKay imbue dramatic heft into stereotypical roles. Everyone in the cast displays a self-aware understanding of the film’s playful theatrics, working in unison to conjure an ensemble of bold personalities with enigmatic intentions.
Still, Death on the Nile endures some significant stumbles. Branagh’s more dramatic ambitions fail to conjure genuine reflection from his character’s underlying pains. It’s fairly awkward to see grand swings at heartfelt sentiments land clumsily on their face, with the writer/director still tripping under his favoring of maudlin self-seriousness.
It may be sincere to a fault, but I appreciate what Branagh and company accomplished with their second Poirot outing. Death on the Nile radiates opulence and page-turning tension in every frame of its clever whodunit plotline. Considering the impressive improvements from Orient Express, I would love to see what Branagh could accomplish with a third film.