Producers: Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Kenneth Branagh and Judy Hofflund Director: Kenneth Branagh Screenplay: Michael Green Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders and Letitia Wright Distributor: Twentieth Century Studios
Kenneth Branagh takes a second lap as Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot following his 2017 version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” and the result is a handsomely mounted but decidedly old-fashioned mystery, hobbled by Branagh’s slack direction and some ill-advised changes and additions to the original.
Of the many possibilities open to him from the author’s vast output, Branagh decided to follow the template of the 1970s-1980s Poirot series by choosing “Death on the Nile” as the sequel, though in the 1978 film Peter Ustinov replaced Albert Finney in the lead. His competition is less daunting this time around. Sidney Lumet’s 1974 “Orient Express” was one of the best pictures of its kind, and Branagh’s remake didn’t measure up to it, either in fidelity or casting. John Guillermin’s 1978 “Nile,” though starrily cast and engaging enough, failed to match its predecessor.
Partially that’s because as a mystery “Nile” is less clever than “Orient Express,” and the relative weakness of the plot also afflicted Andy Wilson’s television adaptation starring David Suchet. But both Guillermin and Wilson’s films benefited from scripts—by Anthony Schaffer and Kevin Elyot, respectively—that were very faithful to the book, making only quite modest changes.
As was the case with his screenplay for Branagh’s “Orient Express,” Michael Green takes a much more liberal approach. The basic contour of the narrative remains intact, but many characters are substantially altered, apparently for reasons of diversity, and there are additions that feel misguided, like an extraneous prologue set in the trenches of World War I that offers a totally unnecessary explanation for Poirot’s notorious moustache, as well as a glimpse into his romantic past. And once again, Branagh’s Poirot is a much more physically active fellow than Christie’s ever was. So purists will probably be offended.
Still, this “Death on the Nile” is attractive to look at (an elegant production design by Jim Clay and gorgeous costumes from Paco Delgado, even if it looks as though much of the broader visual splendor is of the CGI variety courtesy of effects supervisor George Murphy, with rich, gleaming cinematography by Haris Zambarloukas) and will probably hold the attention even of those who figure out the culprit halfway in, which in this case is not all that difficult to do. Patrick Doyle’s fulsome score adds to the feel of plushness.
The mystery involves a romantic triangle: the man is Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and the women rich heiress Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot) and her erstwhile best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). Poirot has seen them together at a blues club in London where jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) is performing. There he witnesses Jacqueline introducing Simon to Linnet as her fiancé.
Not long after, Poirot is on vacation in Egypt when he encounters Linnet and Simon celebrating their marriage, accompanied by friends but also stalked by vengeful Jacqueline. He joins them on a trip down the Nile with his old friend gregarious Bouc (Tom Bateman) and Bouc’s waspish mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), a painter; Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand), a doctor still smitten with Linnet; Linnet’s lawyer, her cousin Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal); Linnet’s maid Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie); Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), Linnet’s godmother, and her nurse Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French); and Salome, along with her niece and manger Rosalie (Letitia Wright), an old classmate of Linnet and Jacqueline. Much to Linnet’s surprise and displeasure, Jacqueline shows up as well.
Of course, things quickly go bad. Simon and Linnet are nearly killed by a falling rock at an ancient cliff temple. And then a murder occurs. Poirot immediately undertakes an investigation, uncovering an abundance of motives and much misdirection. Other killings follow, leading to an ending in which, as usual, the detective uses his little grey cells to sort through the data his questioning has revealed to arrive at the truth of the matter. Editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle manages to keep the convolution and “ah, yes” moments clear.
Branagh is no better a fit for Poirot than his was in “Orient Express” (or than he was for Kurt Wallander in the BBC series), but at least he’s toned down the athleticism this around, and he does evince an affection for the character. Nor is his direction at all inspired. But he’s assembled a good cast and allowed them to have fun with the caricature roles. Some will probably complain about the presence of Armie Hammer, whose career has been pretty much derailed by his extra-cinematic activities, but it would obviously have been impractical to replace him after the fact, the way that director Ridley Scott (a producer here) did Kevin Spacey in “All the Money in the World,” and actually Hammer is quite good playing a callow cad.
Like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot just keeps coming back in new iterations, and Branagh’s take on him is certainly not the bastardization Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. made of Holmes. But their series ended after two installments, and one wonders whether this one will continue further—though, as Suchet proved, there’s plenty more material out there.