Kenneth Branagh’s sequel to 2017’s stylish and likeable Murder on the Orient Express arrives much delayed and with a vague feeling that it has missed its window. Originally set for a 2019 release; production issues, the pandemic and finally the pretty horrific abuse allegations made against Armie Hammer have pushed the movie back several times. It arrives now, a film that has “boxing day” written all over it, limping out in February with one of its stars mired in scandal, its director on the Oscar campaign for a completely different film – Belfast – and with anticipation seemingly evaporated. Consequently, it’s being greeted as less “Death on the Nile” and more “Snooze on the Ouse”.
And, actually, that’s a shame. Like its predecessor, Death on the Nile is stylish and likeable, it does reasonable justice to Agatha Christie’s precision-engineered plotting, has a set of extremely solid performances, looks sumptuous and grand and moves along at an enjoyable lick. Branagh is magnificent as Christie’s best-loved character, Hercule Poirot, a role that he makes entirely his own, no mean feat considering how definitive previous takes have been. He makes the character and his miraculous “leetle grey cells” feel simultaneously like an oddball, genius eccentric and a very human man of empathy and compassion, whose eyes can swim with tears, twinkle with humour or flash hard and flinty by turns. Poirot is among Branagh’s best screen performances and in another timeline it might even have become his signature role. It’s Poirot’s weird charisma that carries both of the recent movies, despite the decadent art nouveau settings and ensemble casts of impossibly beautiful people in impossible beautiful clothes.
In Death on the Nile that cast is headed by Gal Gadot’s Linnet Ridgeway, an extravagantly wealthy heiress who gathers her nearest and dearest aboard a steamer on the famed Egyptian river for her honeymoon. Along for the ride are Sophie Okonedo’s blues singer and her manager/niece (Letitia Wright), Hammer’s dashing Simon, Linnet’s ex-boyf Dr Windlesham (an uncharacteristically understated and soulful Russell Brand) old friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Sex Education’s Emma Mackay) Rose Leslie’s put upon maidservant, a family lawyer played by Ali Fazal, Annette Benning as the fabulously withering Euphemia Bouc, the mother of Orient Express’s returning Tom Bateman, and a welcome big-screen pairing of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as a middle-aged communist hypocrite (a favourite topic of Christie’s) and her travelling nurse. It’s a great cast of great characters and Branagh and writer Michael Green have bent over backwards to add some 21st-century diversity to Agatha Christie’s straight, white wealth, rewriting some characters entirely and conflating others without messing with the basic mechanism of the story.
Of course, for the plot to start moving some of these folk are going to have to die, and it’s up to a there-by-coincidence Poirot to work out the whydunnits. Green and Branagh keep Christie’s mystery intact, with all of its clockwork precision, sleight of hand, red herrings, quietly dropped clues and enough wrong-footing twists to keep anyone unfamiliar with the story guessing. Those who already know the ending will have some fun watching the tick-tock mechanism at work and there are enough embellishments and additions to keep things interesting even if you know the whys-and-hows of the crimes afoot.
The film has received a few sniffy reviews, and that’s not a huge surprise. This is something of a confection, frothy and glamorous, and Branagh’s performance aside is not a piece of great depth or complexity. It’s Christie’s elegant plotting that’s doing the real work here. The cast delivers the lines well enough and look suitably fabulous while doing so, the shots are beautifully composed; the moon reflecting off the river like in one of those reproduction oil paintings your nan had, and the costumes, sets and landscapes look wonderful, especially on the big screen. There’s not a great deal here, however, in terms of subtext or nuance or heart-pounding excitement. British viewers of a certain vintage especially will be pulled out of the experience firstly by memories of David Suchet in the same role on television, secondly by the dawning realisation that, “wait a minute, is that Russell Brand?” and lastly by the cinematically shot French and Saunders occasionally making you think you’re watching one of their mid-90s movie parodies. The latter is something of a shame because the pair aren’t really playing for laughs here and have one of the film’s most interesting subplots. It’s not helped by Jennifer Saunders’ iffy American accent, which comes off as especially unreliable when put directly next to Annette Benning’s flawless British one.
It is, alas, all about context. Catch this on a lazy Sunday afternoon or at Christmas and it’s an enjoyably shiny and well-executed distraction that does everything it needs to and no more. Throw it out into cinemas on a dreary February evening when everyone has not only stopped being excited about it but has forgotten it was ever coming, and it becomes less a whodunnit and more of a whybother.