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Death on the Nile Is a Watchable Whodunit Enhanced by a Vivacious Emma Mackey (Review)

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

While watching Kenneth Branagh’s new sequel to his 2017 Agatha Christie adaptiation Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, I could not stop thinking about the fact that he made an entire other movie – Best Picture nominee Belfast – in the time since this film was made. In fact, you can see little elements that would be applied to Belfast embedded in this film. There’s an extended flashback sequence in crisp black and white. There’s an exuberant dance scene. For whatever reason this all put me in a reminiscing state of mind.

While it’s not the last film that will be released shot entirely during The Before Times – that honor may end up resting with Top Gun: Maverick – it’s strange to think that there will simply be no more movies made in a world without COVID. I think what I found disappointing is that, aside from a few establishing scenes in the film’s first few minutes, this could very easily be a COVID movie. The entire narrative essentially takes place in a trapped environment – a Nile cruise ship – which left me feeling a bit baleful for movies with large crowds of people.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

I know this is a roundabout way to discuss the 46th feature film adapted from Agatha Christie’s work, but I actually think it makes sense. Death on the Nile like, I suspect, the prior film, television, graphic novel, and video game adaptations of the story takes a circumlocutious route to its story. Branagh’s film begins with an extended World War I sequence which explains the tragic backstory of Hercule Poirot’s mustache (I’m only being slightly glib here). It then picks up for a soiree that introduces much of our cast – and telegraphs the murder perpetrator for the eagle eyed – before picking up some months later at a wedding between two of the characters. It’s all a bit overwhelming, and serves as a bit of a distraction from why one would see a Poirot film: a murder and a whodunnit.

I get the instinct to delay the murder until we’ve had a greater chance to meet our suspects in lower stress times, but I found myself antsy waiting for the “real plot” to kick in. The movie is an awful lot of fun once the wheels kick into motion and Poirot moves from interrogation to interrogation among the ship’s passengers. There’s a fun sense of discovery present with each little revelation and character beat.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

As he was in the first film, Branagh remains a hammy delight as Poirot. There’s just enough seriousness under the accent to make the performance genuinely compelling. He’s given a love interest here played by an electric Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) which lets Branagh play a slightly different dynamic. The rest of the supporting cast runs the gamut for me – on the one hand Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) are blandly attractive and sort of a bore while Russell Brand (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and Emma Mackey (Sex Education) seem to be playing in the same slightly campy sandbox as Branagh’s Poirot. Mackey in particular brings a crackling sexuality to her role as a scorned ex.

My biggest hang-up with the film is the decision to use an awful lot of ineffectual CGI. I understand the instinct to make everything look as lusciously “Egyptian” as one imagines Egypt could have been, but poor composition work far too often leaves the film feeling like it was shot on a soundstage. I understand filming on water has countless technical hazards, but I found myself ceaselessly distracted by the craft elements.

Nevertheless, when I think back on Death on the Nile, I’m struck by one particular scene. Mackey, in a form fitting close cut red dress, and Hammer, looking ever the movie star, dance anachronistically as Branagh’s camera moves around them rhythmically. It’s a sexy, energizing scene that should stand as clear evidence that characters in “Disney movies” in fact do fuck.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Death on the Nile opens in theaters tomorrow, February 11, 2022.