When it comes to detective stories, it’s pretty much impossible to find better IP than that of prolific author Agatha Christie, who had a firmer grip on what makes a successful murder-mystery than anyone before or after her. It’s essentially a given, then, that a film adaptation of one of her novels will be exceptionally entertaining, with an ingeniously crafty story in place to nail even the flimsiest of panels together. As such, filmmakers have been adapting Christie novels since her career began to blossom in the 1930s, with almost 50 feature-length adaptations and even more television spin-offs. The most recent person to add to that ever-growing catalog is writer-actor-director Kenneth Branagh.
In 2017, Branagh adapted Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express, which follows a murder that occurs on, well…the Orient Express. Esteemed detective Hercule Poirot, played by a fiercely mustachioed Branagh, swoops in to save the day, and makes it his noble mission to figure out whodunnit. Orient Express proved my theory that it’s pretty difficult to royally screw up a Christie novel: The film’s pacing is achingly slow, its characters sorely lack dimension, and yet it still boasted $352 million worldwide at the box office. Based on Branagh’s brief stint in Christie adaptations, when the news broke that he was adapting Orient Express’s sequel, Death on the Nile, I was expecting more of the same. That is, a moderately dull film with a plot strong enough to hold its audiences’ attention until the end credits.
I was wrong. Death on the Nile begins with a freshly engaged couple, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), crooning over one another in a night club. Three months later, a swarm of people show up to Simon’s wedding, only it is not Jacqui he is getting married to, but inordinately wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot). The newlyweds and their wedding party embark on a luxurious honeymoon cruise down the River Nile, but when a jealous Jacqui shows up and a murder is committed, things quickly devolve into chaos—a chaos that can only be abated by Detective Poirot (played once again by Branagh with the assistance of his epic mustache).
By virtue of the fact that it circles a nearly inscrutable mystery, Death on the Nile is undeniably engrossing. But what really sets it apart from its predecessor is, where Orient Express didn’t manage to find its footing until there was a mystery to be solved, Branagh makes sure to cast its sequel’s net beyond its core brainteaser. Indeed, Branagh takes care to engross us in the film’s central love triangle long before the murder even occurs. Mackey’s magnetic performance as Jacqui affords her and Simon heart-stopping chemistry in a dance scene where they meet for the first time, even though Hammer isn’t himself exactly overflowing with charisma. When a brokenhearted Jacqui later boards the cruise, Mackey’s doleful expression, tinted with fierce determination, is enough to make us both sympathetic to her position and interested in what her next move might be.
Her presence at the center of the love triangle is so enrapturing—as is the general tension that the first act’s steady pacing brings out—that I half-forgot that the movie was even advertised as a murder-mystery. By the time the action really begins, Nile is already a feast. Branagh wastes no time introducing magnificent setpieces; in the first act, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukas moves gracefully through dazzling widescreen shots of the Abu Simbel temple and Egypt’s towering pyramids, as if to say “buckle up, because this is going to be an unapologetic adventure flick from start to finish.”
At times, though, the grandiose setpieces and well-paced, witty script overshadow the film’s characters—in particular, the two leads. Linnet is a particularly thin character. She often comes across as nothing more than a wealthy prop who says lines like “we have enough champagne to fill the Nile” with a straight face (and if you were wondering, no, that line isn’t less cringy in context). It doesn’t help that Gadot brings absolutely no charisma to the role, and reads her lines like she is looking just beyond the camera at a teleprompter. Hammer is similarly dull, playing Simon like a total square, and it’s a little difficult to believe that he was actually written that way given that the film’s plot revolves around two beautiful women fawning over him.
Linnet and Simon aren’t the only characters lacking in depth: Renowned painter Euphemia doesn’t have much to offer the phenomenal Annette Bening beyond an overprotective mother’s predictable inhospitality, and her son, Bouc (Tom Bateman) isn’t given much to do beyond look concerned. To my surprise, Russell Brand stood out as Linnet’s ex-fiancé, whom he plays with sad eyes and a quiet cadence. And if you can forgive his accent, Branagh is convincing as Poirot, offering an undertone of melancholy and what I dare say is the greatest mustache backstory in film history.
Still, despite the fact that there is hardly anyone in the cast that hasn’t either been accused of being a cannibal or anti-vaxxer, or is lacking in charisma, or both, Branagh does a masterful job of keeping the film’s spirit alive. His use of long, unbroken tracking shots to survey the characters’ reactions to the turmoil on board their ship beckons us to become the detectives ourselves, scrutinizing the cast in real time. Snappy—if sometimes predictable—dialogue picks the film up out of any rut it might inadvertently find itself slipping into. I’m sure Branagh will be looking back to Christie for inspiration in the near future, and I’m sure it’ll be another successful endeavor. I just hope this time he draws a longer straw in the casting department.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Michael Green
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Rose Leslie, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright, Ann Turkel
Release Date: February 9, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.