Kenneth Branagh’s sleek Agatha Christie adaptation, his second after 2017’s underwhelming and overly staid Murder on the Orient Express, is a delight, just so long as you are patient with it.
For a murder mystery, Death on the Nile takes its sweet time getting to the murder. The script almost teases you with this delay. The characters are introduced (or reintroduced in some cases) with a coy monologue which lays out the backstories which establish each person’s potential motives. Establishing shots are occasionally interrupted by sudden acts of animal violence, as if to say, murder is in the nature of this world — just give it time. One poorly staged false start nearly takes the head off of the love-struck heiress Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot).
This heiress has jilted her childhood friend Jackie (Emma Mackey) by stealing Jackie’s fiance’s (Armie Hammer) heart. Now on their honeymoon, Jackie has returned to make their lives uncomfortable. Legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh), who happened to be invited to the proceedings, is tasked with trying to drive Jackie away from the happy couple.
The lengthy events leading up to the initial murder also stumble when introducing relevant details which will factor into the larger mystery. One missing item and a crucial line of dialogue, said directly before guns are drawn, threaten to telegraph the solution of the mystery long before we are meant to piece it all together.
All the same, the journey here is as much about the unbearable weight of love as it is about solving a crime. The script does adept work when it comes to grounding the heightened events in this central theme, this paradox that love is both a fearsome motivator of the human condition and a vacuum of hopelessness and grief.
It is this central concern which animated the film even when no criminal activity is taking place. The meditative heartache of Poirot—whose lost love we see in an opening flashback (which also serves as an origin story for Poirot’s trademark mustache)—carries the tone of the film, paints it with a broad emotional brush. Branagh is in fine form as Poirot in this respect, providing the character with a meal of pathos with a hint of ham.
Visually, this film makes use of the lavish excesses not afforded to the train setting of Murder on the Orient Express. The characters in the film spare no expense, so the set design is adorned accordingly. The cinematography makes a show of highlighting this (it is perhaps too excessive in its movements).
Branagh also uses common tricks of composition to make scenes of static dialogue exciting. He and DP Haris Zambarloukos create frames within the frame to heighten drama and emphasize character reactions—one frame-within-a-frame is so stylized that it pulls our attention to one of Poirot’s eyes.
As with the sets and the costuming, the camerawork is gaudy and excessive. The camera swoops in, spins around, cuts to extreme angles. And this may be subject to the fair criticism that it is all too distracting. But in a sense the distraction is part of the game.
Death on the Nile does everything it can to remove the stuffiness from the classical murder mystery format. It isn’t as dynamic or windy as the recent Knives Out, which was so popular it spawned an unlikely sequel. But Knives Out‘s Benoit Blanc owes a great debt to Hercule Poirot and Agatha Christie’s exciting work. And Branagh—here more so than with Express—delivers on translating that excitement to the screen (if pacing is of little concern to you).
Death on the Nile: B-
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)