Death On The Nile isn’t all smooth sailing

Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile sails into cinemas with all the pomp and grandeur one might expect from a luxurious cruise down the the father of African Rivers. Yet, despite its luxurious appointments and star-studded cast, it often struggles to keep its head above water.

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is hoping for a peaceful holiday in Egypt, but his plans are thwarted when he’s drawn into a murder investigation aboard a Nile steamer. The socialite Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot) has married Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), much to the chagrin of Simon’s jilted ex-fiancée Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). As tensions rise among the eclectic group of passengers, which includes Linnet’s lawyer Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), her ex-fiancé (Russell Brand), and her godmother (Jennifer Saunders), Poirot must untangle a web of jealousy and deceit to uncover the killer.

Death on the Nile boasts a remarkable ensemble led by Gal Gadot, who certainly looks the part of the ravishing heiress, though her acting lacks the depth needed for such a complex character and her chemistry with Armie Hammer’s Simon Doyle is unfortunately tepid, which undermines the central romance. Ironically it helps that Hammer’s off-screen career-ending scandals inadvertently lend his portrayal of a creepy and manipulative character a layer of serendipitous authenticity. Emma Mackey, however, is captivating as the jilted Jacqueline, her performance adding much-needed intensity and edge to the film. Kenneth Branagh, reprising his role as the meticulous Hercule Poirot, is as charismatic and quick-witted as ever.

The film’s visual panache, while initially impressive, quickly reveals its overreliance on CGI and soundstage sets, creating a distracting sense of artificiality. Shot predominantly at Longcross Studios in Surrey, England, the production constructed life-sized replicas of iconic Egyptian landmarks like the Temple of Abu Simbel and the SS Karnak steamer boat and although some real Egyptian footage was captured for backdrops, the CGI-supplemented landscapes often look glossy and synthetic, detracting from the immersive experience and ultimately feels like an obvious veneer over what could have been a richly textured tapestry of intrigue and suspense.

The plot, familiar to Christie fans, involves the murder of a wealthy heiress aboard a Nile steamer. As Poirot untangles a web of jealousy, betrayal, and deceit, Branagh attempts to weave in modern cinematic flair with mixed results. The balance between maintaining the story’s period charm and infusing contemporary sensibilities doesn’t always hold steady. Some might find the film’s adaptation of the source novel’s pacing problematic, with the first half being a slow burn, introducing characters and setting the stage, until the second half ignites with the Long cross murder investigation unfolding at a haste which feels rushed and disjointed.

With such a large ensemble, many of the supporting characters feel underdeveloped, or at least underserved by a script that seems a little too taken by its bigger star names, a significant drawback for a mystery where every character should be a potential suspect. While the likes of Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, and Russell Brand provide enjoyable performances, they often feel more like caricatures than fully fleshed-out individuals. Sophie Okonedo, on the other hand, gets more to do as Salome Otterbourne, a character who is significantly different from her portrayal in the source material. In Agatha Christie’s novel, Salome Otterbourne is an alcoholic romance novelist. The film reimagines her as a blues singer and Okonedo brings her to vivacious life with a vibrancy and wit which not only catches Poirot’s eye but there’s even a hint of a possible mutual attraction between the pair.

Unique, perhaps, to Branagh’s interpretation of this character and especially in this film, we explore hitherto unseen aspects of the character beyond his famously idiosyncratic picadilloes. A more troubled man than other incarnations, perhaps the most unexpected turn is in this version of Death on the Nile providing a most unexpected origin story for Poirot’s famous moustache. It is, of course, gone by the end of the film – the second close companion the detective loses during this case as his friend and erstwhile sidekick (and Captain Hastings proxy) Bouc (Tom Bateman) also meets his end at the hands of the murderous masterminds behind the whole sordid affair.

Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile is a lavish, visually striking adaptation that promises much but delivers inconsistently. Its strengths lie in its stellar cast and impressive if compromised cinematography, but it falters with uneven pacing and one or two more characters than it has the time for. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, Murder on the Orient Express, the voyage of Death on the Nile may not always be smooth sailing, but it’s a still a journey well worth taking.

death on the nile review
Score 7/10

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