Film review: ‘DEATH ON THE NILE’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Death on the Nile

Following his well-received Murder on The Orient Express remake, Kenneth Branagh returns as director and lead character – the iconic detective Hercule Poirot – in another Agatha Christie film remake, Death on the Nile, which we previously saw in 1978.

The film largely follows the template of the 1978 version as a ‘well to do’ group of westerners assemble for a wedding party on a boat cruising down the Nile and where, despite the world’s greatest detective, Poirot, being on the guest list (which is explained) someone decides it’s a good opportunity to commit murder. The victim in this case is wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot) who had just married sweaty ne’er-do-well Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and had strangely decided to treat a group of questionable acquaintances to an exotic overseas holiday in celebration.  As the intrepid Poirot grills each member of the party, he discovers they all have a reason for bumping off the victim and it’s up to him disentangle the threads of this mystery, see through their calculated deceptions and unmask the killer.

Branagh has crafted a mostly effective and engaging murder mystery here but he’s unwisely tried to amp up the drama with additional violence and a more frenzied and intense mood than the 1978 film. Consequently, this version of Death on the Nile lacks the earlier film’s laid-back charm and at times feels like it’s trying too hard.  Also, swirling camera movements and occasional dodgy CGI give the film a feeling of artificiality (unlike the 1978 film which used Egyptian locations, this one was actually shot in England).  Still, Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who also lensed Murder on the Orient Express and Branagh’s Oscar-nominated Belfast, conjure some stunning shots of the river at sunset.  There’s also some remarkable art direction and costuming that revels in late 30’s Art Deco style and a time when westerners could apparently strut around foreign lands in pristine white suits.

Much of the enduring appeal of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries lies in the character of her detectives.  With Poirot it’s the triumph of razor-sharp intellect and cool analysis over destructive human flaws. Those qualities, as well as his eagle eye for the most incidental, yet critical, clue are once again on display here as Poirot constructs an airtight case from the most esoteric details and displays a near-psychic ability to see through the suspects’ deception.

Although the film celebrates the mathematical precision of Poroit’s reasoning, it also tries, with varying degrees of success, to give him more emotional dimension and vulnerability. Through a prologue depicting his backstory during World War One, we learn of a lost romance and strangely enough, the origins of his extravagant facial hair.  While an attempt to give the character more depth is welcome, these Agatha Christie adaptations are really a bit of a lark and unlike Daniel Craig’s potent reinvention of the Bond character, the more emotionally complex Poirot isn’t especially affecting.

Another drawcard of the marquis Agatha Christie adaptations like Orient Express and Nile is the big name ensemble cast.  While all do a reasonable job here, the cast that includes Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Russell Brand and Annette Benning can’t match the 1978 film’s stellar cast of Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, David Niven, Jack Warden, Angela Lansbury and Maggie Smith not to mention Peter Ustinov as Poirot.  Impressively, though, Branagh has given the film greater diversity with the inclusion Sophie Okonedo as an electric blues singer and guitarist, Salome, who’s very reminiscent of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Letitia Wright as her daughter and Ali Fazal as Linnet’s cousin and lawyer.

This version of Death on the Nile feels a little heavy-handed at times but the central whodunit plot cuts through (just) and most importantly Poirot is still a magnetic figure.

Nick’s rating:     

Genre: Murder mystery.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Kenneth Branagh.

Release date: 10th Feb 2022.

Running time: 127 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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