Kenneth Branagh films are like buses at the moment. You wait an entire pandemic for one and then two come along at once. The Oscar-nominated Belfast (actually shot during COVID-19) and his second outing as Hercule Poirot, Death On The Nile.
At the end of 2017’s Murder On The Orient Express, Poirot is asked to investigate a “murder on the bloody Nile”. A tip of the cap towards the next installment of Branagh’s own MCU. That is the Moustached Crimesolver Universe. However it appears that screenwriter Michael Green had not brushed up on that particular Agatha Christie novel when penning Express. For the first murder in this story does not take place for a full hour!
So instead of the film beginning with HPI – Hercule Poirot investigates – the audience is treated to an origin story for his facial hair. Yes, really. It’s cinema’s most unnecessary prequel since we learned how Donna got her dungarees in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.
After that Branagh and his plus one (the moustache) take in a trip to the Great Pyramids Of Giza. Well a trip to a giant green screen soundstage in Pinewood probably. Never mind the potential red herrings, the biggest distraction to discovering the identity of the murderer is the incredibly obvious and poorly rendered CGI backgrounds on the Nile. Which may or may not be completely filled with champagne…
Invited to join a wedding party on a honeymoon trip down the Nile, this Whodunnit is another veritable Who’s Who of actors. The opportunity to work with Branagh is clearly still a major draw for many. From legends like Annette Bening to wonder women like Gal Gadot to British comedy legends French and Saunders. Then there are, similar to Orient Express, slimy pencil-thin moustached lotharios played by actors who become cancelled by Hollywood well before anyone can put a bullet or a knife in them.
This murder mystery has laid anchored in the Nile for so long that it felt like it may never see the light of day given the widely publicised issues surrounding certain cast members. Ultimately however, there are two camps. The loud opinions of Film Twitter (the same people screaming wildly at the unintentionally meme-worthy delivery of “enough champagne… to fill the Nile”, and the target market for these movies who probably have no idea who Armie Hammer is, let alone care about his Instagram account.
If anything is to throw a spanner in the works, it is that audiences are more savvy to this type of plot nowadays. In part thanks to the proliferation of Netflix documentaries about solving unbelievable crimes or new takes on the genre like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. People’s expectations are simply much higher and the demand more from these movies.
It would be fair to say that the knives are out for some of the cast as the performances are as divisive as Branagh’s choice of facial hair. Russell Brand feels out of place and delivers once of the worst reactions to the discovery of a dead body in the history of cinema. Conversely, Sex Education‘s Emma Mackey is utterly magnetic as the scorned ex-lover of the Groom. She lights up the screen when she is there and the film suffers when she is not. Instead plodding along at a snail’s pace through a series of dull and listless scenes.
Screenwriting legend Robert McKee once said “The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”. Now any fan of the murder mystery genre is just waiting for the scene where the detective reveals whodunnit. Not only that by whatdunnit, whydunnit, whendunnit and wheredunnit.
Several characters call out Poirot for his attitude over the course of the film. He is called selfish and narcissistic. Making the case all about himself rather than the victims and to an extent it is true also of Branagh. Directing his own performance, he essentially grabs the microphone and delivers a masterclass in holding the suspects and audience’s attention as he rattles off a searing monologue as he unmasks the killer.
If if they are unfamiliar with the original novel, amateur detectives or armchair sleuths will probably have worked out who the killer is well before the reveal but like McKee advised, Branagh does enough to bring the ship home in a satisfying way.
As stated, many times here, Hercule Poirot may be the greatest detective in the world. Is Death On The Nile the greatest detective movie in the world? Definitely not. Not even close. Anyone who says otherwise has had enough champagne to feel denial.
Death On The Nile is in cinemas now
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Emma Mackey, Tom Bateman
Runtime: 126 minutes