Death on the Nile movie review: Kenneth Branagh’s sparkly but predictable affair is unfit for a post-Knives Out world

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Kenneth Branagh has rounded up another batch of film stars, booked another luxurious mode of travel and put his extravagant moustache back on for his second Agatha Christie whodunit, Death on the Nile. Finally finding a release date almost two years later than what was intended, it feels a bit stale on arrival and not all of it can be blamed on a pandemic.

Death on the Nile is counted among Christie’s most famous murder mysteries, solved by her famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. While the murder plot and the mystery it invokes is much the same, director Branagh has decided to really hit the gas on what he started with his first film in the franchise, Murder on the Orient Express–making Poirot more human. While there were hints of a warm heart within him in the first part, here, we are made witness to just how tragically it was ripped apart a long, long time ago. 

The film starts in the trenches of Belgium, sometime during the first World War. It shows Poirot’s origin story in black and white–perhaps a new found love for Branagh, more ardently shown in his Oscar-nominated Belfast. It also shows the deep scars that still haunt him and make this version of the detective far more sensitive and affecting in moments of ache than any of the previous versions. Now, his eyes gleam with tears on hearing the heartache of others, his voice breaks on revisiting memories of an old love and shame veils his face when he is told things that are still a bit too alien for even him to perceive. On all these counts, Branagh deserves a full score. However, the tears run dry after a while and sadly, his Poirot just doesn’t have enough wit or style to keep this boat afloat.

The rest of the cast does try to delay the sinking as much as it could. Kicking off the film is a plot fit for a 90’s telenovella. Gal Gadot plays an heiress who steals away her friend’s (Emma Mackey’s) fiance (Armie Hammer), just a few weeks after being introduced to him. After a few scenes of some very sexual and frankly a bit uncomfortable-to-sit-through dancing, we are transported to Egypt, to witness the heiress and the stolen fiance on their honeymoon cruise on the river Nile. The newlyweds are joined by a large wedding party including a Communist godmother, her nurse, an overworked attendant, a seedy cousin, an ex-suitor, an on-board entertainment, on-board entertainment’s charming niece, a son and his difficult-to-please mother, and a famous detective. But the party is interrupted when the wronged friend arrives unannounced, on a mission to follow the bride and groom wherever they go, like the ghosts of girlfriends past. The heiress asks for Poirot’s help, anticipating a killing. Lucky for us (but not so much for that one party member), there is a killing indeed.

Gal is well cast as the enigmatic heiress who can sometimes be a bit blind to her own privilege. She can be grand, condescending, and sometimes so over-the-top, you can’t help but roll your eyes. Someone aptly describes her as easy to love and to hate. Gal get that across very well indeed. Armie, however good he may be at gyrating on the dance floor or being cruel to an ex, his screen time seemed extremely limited. How much of it was affected by his recent controversies is unknown.

Emma Mackey and Kenneth Branagh in a still from the film.
Emma Mackey and Kenneth Branagh in a still from the film.

But the star of the show was most certainly Emma Mackey. A personal favourite since debuting as a high school student with Netflix’s Sex Education, Emma more or less grows up into a tragic woman desperate for love and revenge, in the blink of an eye. She is equally convincing in both the roles. Never once does she seem like a novice, even when sharing intense, emotional scenes with Branagh himself. The rest of the cast, with the exception of Sophie Okonedo as the fierce and flirty Jazz star, gets not much to play with. Nope, not even Bollywood export Ali Fazal as the aforementioned seedy cousin.

The dialogues and writing is also where Death on the Nile lacks the most. There is none of that snazzy humour that kept you smitten with characters until one decided to stab another. People are heard discussing mundane things like kites, champagne or luggage and none of it was any fun to sit through. Threats are made and received, fights break out, confessions are made, boring interrogations are conducted without any spark that could light a fire of interest within you. While the lovers’ drama generated enough tension to keep the propellers turning in the beginning, the post-murder act is just too dull to care for. 

This is perhaps also the effect of living in a post-Knives Out world. Rian Johnson’s brilliant 2019 film stayed so true to the Christie-Doyle world, respecting all its rules and yet, bringing such a luscious new flavour and style, well-written characters and yet another eccentric detective at the helm of it. It showed how one can play by the formula and still subvert all expectations from a genre we have built up over the years. Sadly, in Death on the Nile, it’s just the hairstyles and outfits that seem to have changed for 21st century tastes. Despite some surface level mentions of race and LGBTQ+ love, there is little to explain why the film needed making. 

Also read: Knives Out movie review: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans give us a whodunnit Agatha Christie would be proud of

The films also looks a bit disappointing despite all the grandeur. In Murder on the Orient Express, there were gorgeous views of snow-covered mountains and the black steam engine piercing through it. Here, the locations–pyramids, the Sphynx–all seem CGI, the sunsets on the Nile too synthetic and manufactured. The music is still more time-suited, heavily packed with blues and jazz and some thumping score by Patrick Doyle.

Death on the Nile could have been our back-to-the-movies movie after the third wave but sadly, I don’t think it’s going to be worth the trouble. Guddu bhaiya fans, I wish you good luck though.

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