Kenneth Branagh in Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile Review: A Poor Parody of a Murder Mystery

The first rule of quality filmmaking is ‘show, don’t tell’. Unfortunately for audiences, Kenneth Branagh’s all-star adaptation of Death on the Nile does far too little of the former and way too much of the latter. So much so that it felt almost a parody of Agatha Christie’s famous detective story.

This latest adaptation follows the author’s famous Belgian sleuth as he boards a luxurious Egyptian steamer after accepting an invitation from a wealthy English couple, Simon and Linnet Doyle (Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot). The newlyweds are being stalked by Simon’s ex-fiance (and Linnet’s ex-friend) Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), and want Poirot to discourage her obsession. When the wedding party is cut tragically short, the detective is left with no shortage of suspects.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Director Branagh rose to fame, at a relatively young age, for his powerful takes on Shakespeare – specifically 1989’s Henry V and later Much Ado About Nothing. His directorial style was – and is – extravagant, dramatic and, given his theatre background, unsurprisingly showy and stagey. A perfect style for King Hal’s rousing speeches or for the bawdy, witty comedy of Benedick and Beatrice. Less so for anything nuanced and, like Christie’s mysteries, quietly intriguing. His style has worked well for other films over his career (Thor, even Dead Again–an oft-forgotten but highly-watchable thriller) and even worked well for last year’s Belfast, mainly because the film was seen through the eyes of young Branagh-surrogate Buddy (Jude Hill). To children, every emotion is heightened, every life event dramatic or joyful in turn. The final product was heartwarming, moving but also about as emotionally subtle as an anvil.

Death on the Nile

His direction of Nile falls back on those well-worn habits of high drama here. And on paper, it may seem like a good match for a murder mystery and maybe it is, if you’re aiming for the dark, broad humour of Knives Out. But for an intimate, English drawing-room detective story it’s entirely the wrong tone from beginning to end. The film feels stagey at every turn, with gimmicky camera angles and movements that serve only to distract from the mystery at hand. Often Branagh’s indulgences as a filmmaker can be quite endearing and entertaining but, unfortunately, they have quite the opposite effect here. Where Branagh could suggest or imply, he straight out bashes the audience over the head with an idea. He zeroes in on the wild animals of Egypt and the Nile to provide the perfect metaphor for predator and prey, but he returns to them again and again to the point that even the most oblivious of audience members will be rolling their eyes. 


The Comedy of Errors

But for all of Branagh’s missteps as a director, it’s Michael Green’s script that truly lets audiences down. The writer has either never read an Agatha Christie novel or has a fundamental misunderstanding of her stories and of Hercule Poirot (played here once again by Branagh). He does manage to capture the man’s fastidious nature, his good humour, and at points, his ‘little grey cells’ at work. But what Green has missed about Christie’s classics is what makes them so compelling and so ripe for adaptation after adaptation: the stories are not about Poirot. The Belgian detective possesses a sizeable ego, of that there is no doubt, but the gripping drama comes via the crime at the heart of the story, not via the personal feelings or circumstances of Poirot. A man subtly scarred by his past, he always holds himself above the fray while still showing a real sense of empathy and sympathy for those who deserve it. He has a keen sense of what is right and what is not, but very often holds off on judging the lives and mistakes of those set out before him. Green managed to convey this in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, but only just. In Nile, he reduces the number of Christie’s original suspects and replaces another with Bouc (Tom Bateman)—a character we met in Orient Express—the consequences of which put Poirot and his emotions front and centre in the story. 

Green also depicts Poirot as being fairly flummoxed right up until the last moment, which goes against everything we know about the detective. The script has him accusing almost everyone left alive at one point or another, turning each of his interrogations into a parody of the murder mystery format. Characters spout cliche after cliche, Poirot accusation after accusation. One argumentative encounter even has a suspect bellow: “That’s not something you can prove on a boat!” A mic drop of the finest order. And who are we to argue the point?

The screenplay also largely forgets the cardinal rule of investigators: never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. The climactic reveal comes largely out of nowhere and, given the list of suspects contains far fewer than the original storyline, is decidedly less impressive. It seems that the filmmakers may have realized this too late and in desperation threw in some additional, unnecessary drama to heighten the tension. You could have given audiences a perfect film up to this point but if you fail to land the big whodunnit moment, as they have here, you’ve essentially tanked the whole production. After all, if you’ve not become invested in the characters by the time of the climax, why should you care what becomes of them?

Death on the Nile

Much Ado About Nothing

Another essential piece of the murder mystery puzzle is the laundry list of suspects. An almost literal rogues gallery laid out before us from the word go. It almost goes without saying that one of the greatest joys of British detective stories from Christie, Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, and the like is the sheer number of juicy roles available. From key suspects to the nosy bellhop who caught a glimpse of something important, there’s something for every stature of performer. Unfortunately for Death on the Nile, what started as an impressive A-list cast soon became what most would term a publicist’s worst nightmare. From a rightfully disgraced Armie Hammer to several actors made problematic by their unpopular (and in some cases dangerous) views, it makes an already wrong-footed film that much harder to sit through. Though they had finished shooting when the damaging information about Hammer came to light, you get the sense that the film was edited to minimize his time on screen. They needn’t have bothered because what screen time Hammer does have, he squanders with a barely passable English accent and wooden delivery. 


Along those lines, Nile’s narrative rests heavily on the central trio displaying undeniable chemistry. Though relative newcomer Emma Mackey tries her best to make something happen on her end, there’s nothing real to work with via Hammer or Gadot. There’s an odd set piece near the beginning of the film that sees Jacqueline and Linnet each dance individually with Simon, giving us a bizarre 1930s equivalent of Dirty Dancing. The lustful moves seem to take the place of actual character development and strive hard to drive home the simmering tension and lust that’s needed to make the rest of the film work, but the whole thing just seems forced and tacked on. An example of the ‘show, don’t tell’ adage actually working against Branagh’s vision for the film.

The rest of the cast don’t fare much better in terms of suitability or in their actual performance. Both Sophie Okonedo and Dawn French acquit themselves well in supporting roles despite the material, but almost everyone else falls victim to the surroundings and the script. Even Annette Bening, the most reliable of talents, does well at the outset but gasps and overacts her way to the conclusion. And the less said of the mishmash of accents on board the Karnak, the better. 

Branagh himself seemed to have a fair grasp of Poirot in his first outing as the Belgian detective. Of course the moustache of it all may have distracted us from peering too closely at his rendition but for the first half of Death on the Nile, he does a fair job as the world famous detective, particularly excelling at Poirot’s kindness and quick wit. You can easily understand how the detective has gained the reputation he has and how quickly he finds himself drawn into the complicated problems of those around him.

Death on the Nile

And where actors could convey simple emotions or more nuanced inner turmoil, they’re instead forced to explain motivations and feelings in the most basic of terms. Screenwriter Green seems to assume an audience of the lowest common denominator and ascribes them with almost negligible intelligence. Kenneth Branagh is a better than fine actor who can deliver as needed, and it’s painful to watch him silently act the hell out of a sentimental scene before breaking the silence to lead audiences through exactly what he’s feeling. That may be required in a stage production where the audience can’t possibly see the myriad of expressions crossing a performer’s face, but in a production where every other shot is a close up, it seems superfluous.


Measure for Measure

Where the film scores additional points is in its sumptuous 1930s costumes and practical sets straight out of the poshest of Art Deco hotels and cruisers of the past. Refreshingly shot on 70mm film, the beautiful production design is let down by some distractingly bad visual effects. It’s hard to wonder at the beauty and glory of an Egyptian sunset when it’s clear the actors are nowhere near the Nile.

For all its foibles, if this latest of Death on the Nile adaptations had gifted us with anything new and worthwhile in terms of storytelling, it might have been easier to forgive its many letdowns in front of and behind the camera. But there are no changes that uplift or improve the telling of this story. All the additions and subtractions do here is muddle and obscure what is truly one of Agatha Christie’s best mysteries.

Death on the Nile is now in theatres nationwide.