Death on the Nile Kenneth Branagh

Death on the Nile is bloated and ugly

Kenneth Branagh’s second Poirot film, with a cast rounded out by a parade of unlikeable and unpopular figures, is tacky, ego-driven and overlong, but still has grains of entertainment.

In the trenches of WW1, a young Hercule Poirot (a notably pre-moustache and de-aged Kenneth Branagh) devises a life-saving plan that will save his company from a suicide mission. Despite experiencing a devastating personal loss and an injury that would leave his face permanently scarred, his cleverness leads him to be declared a hero. This incident puts him on a new path, and the would-be farmer becomes the future detective: Poirot and his moustache are born. 

The opening sequence sets a particularly disconcerting tone for the rest of the film. The trauma backstory looms over a character ill-suited for that kind of context. It signals a storytelling style so predominant in contemporary popular cinema that over-explains and over-psychologizes its characters. Rather than root the character in reality, it only raises doubts about the integrity of this identity. Branagh’s ego-driven decision to speak French in this backstory, with his unmistakably English inflections, makes his accent while speaking English seem all the more absurd. The movie almost falls apart before it begins.

Death on the Nile is Branagh’s second adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel featuring Hercule Poirot. This time, the Belgian detective and a band of misfits find themselves on a barge crossing the Nile as murder strikes. The simplicity of the murder mystery and the unique joys of the twists and turns of motives become unfortunately bogged down by a bloated script, rife with endless digressions. We’re given far too much information with minimal means or motive. For those hoping for a lean adaptation of a favourite Christie novel, they only make it to the barge about 40 minutes into the film, the first murder occurring around the first-hour mark. 

Quite accidentally, the film’s cast is rounded out by a parade of unlikeable and unpopular figures. We have at least four cast members actively embroiled in scandal: Armie Hammer’s cannibalism, Letitia Wright’s reported anti-vax stance, Gal Gadot’s IDF support, Russell Brand’s… Russell Brand-ness. That knocks off most of the cast and speaks little for how generally uninteresting most of these people are. Gadot, one of the more central characters, may very well be the least charismatic star to grace the screen since James Cameron tried to make Sam Worthington the next big thing. Some of the supporting cast raises the bar slightly, but overall, such a character-driven film ultimately feels character-less. 

Visually, the film is tacky and plastic. The CGI looks terrible, and for a movie that could easily be a chamber piece, focused mainly on the goings-on on the boat, it leans heavily on huge vistas of 1930s Egypt that feel flat and unfinished. The costumes aren’t necessarily bad, but most of the cast seem uncomfortable in 1930s wear. More often than not, the film feels like an extremely expensive dinner mystery party. Branagh does try to recreate the rhythms and visual cues of 1930s cinema, using inserts and close-ups that are more old-Hollywood than contemporary. His meticulous attention to detail can’t overcome the fact that he doesn’t have a strong instinct for composition as a filmmaker. His style feels calculated rather than natural. 

However, the film isn’t an utter failure and still has grains of entertainment. Yes, there’s way too much backstory at play overall, but the essential emotional throughline of love & loss works beautifully in setting the scene for the mystery. Each character on the ship is suffering or has suffered a romantic failure or romantic insecurity. The motive for murder becomes fiery and vaguely romantic, regardless of who pulled the trigger. The central mystery at the heart of the film is compelling and well-drawn; it’s just ultimately bogged down by everything else. 

Is Death on the Nile worth watching? It strikes me as the perfect film to watch at home while doing chores, especially if you aren’t keen on paying much attention to the bloated first half. While cast members like Annette Bening and Emma Mackay bring their A-Game, much of the cast doesn’t sparkle or sweat quite enough to be interesting. While I’m happy that Hollywood is still cranking out non-superhero movies, surely they can do better than this? ■

Death on the Nile opens in Montreal theatres on Thursday, Feb. 10.

Death on the Nile, directed by Kenneth Branagh

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