The murder mystery sub genre has in surprising ways seen a bit of a resurgence in cinema as of late. Prior to the Covid lockdown that shuttered movie theaters, the last big surprise box office hit was a revisionist take on the genre called Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson. Johnson not only took all of the narrative conventions of the genre and turned them on it’s head, he also did so with another convention of the genre seen throughout the history of cinema; the all-star cast. It’s been something that Hollywood has always done with these whodunit styles of mysteries. Since each story is composed of an ensemble of colorful, and often eccentric characters, it in turn makes for an ideal place to put together a bunch of stars and see them play off of each other. You can see this in movies dating as far back as Laura (1944) and movies more recently as Clue (1985) and of course Knives Out. But, of course the most noteworthy examples of this sub-genre have been those from the Queen of Mystery herself: Agatha Christie. Christie’s prolific body of work includes 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, and the longest running play ever performed on the London West End (The Mousetrap: 69 years and still going). Of course, her work has attracted the likes of Hollywood as well, and several films have been adapted from her work. The 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express directed by Sidney Lumet went on to be a box office hit and Oscar winner for example. Christie’s most prolific character, Detective Hercule Poirot (who’s appeared in 33 of her 66 novels) has also been played on the silver screen by actors as noteworthy as Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, Ian Holm, Alfred Molina, and John Malkovich. The most recent actor to take up the mustachioed mantle of Detective Poirot has been esteemed thespian and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh, who likewise managed to bring about a surprise hit with his own adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017). With success built from Orient Express, Branagh managed to line up a follow-up with another of Christie’s famed Poirot novels, Death on the Nile. However, much to the unfortunate luck of Mr. Branagh, a lot of turmoil happened over the course between when he filmed the movie and before it has finally made it’s way to theaters this week. Some of it probably more dramatic than what’s actually in the film itself.
First of all, the movie became one of the projects thrown into an uncertain release schedule due to the oncoming merger between it’s production company, 20th Century Fox, and Disney. This inevitably delayed production on the film, which was originally set for a December 2019 release. Fortunately for all involved, the actual production shoot went on without incident and completed in little over a month. As the film went into post-production, gearing up for it’s new October 2020 release, another hurdle was thrown the movie’s way: the Covid-19 global pandemic. Though the movie stuck to it’s October date for quite a long time, the continuing closure of most theaters across crucial markets like North America and Europe, and the underperformance of Warner Brothers’ Tenet (2020) released in the midst of this market, made it clear that there was no chance for the movie to make up it’s nearly $100 million budget in that box office climate. So, the movie was taken off the calendar entirely until further notice. Unfortunately during this time, some unexpected bad news also began to crop up during the delay; this time related to the film’s cast. One of the stars of the film, Armie Hammer, began to be swept up in a scandal when disturbing violent and sexual behavior came to light after several women came forward with their accounts of abuse from the actor. The resulting scandal has seen Hammer lose pretty much all the jobs he had lined up after Death on the Nile, as well as the departure of nearly his entire support team of agents and publicists; pretty much an entire annihilation of his career in Hollywood. And while Hammer’s situation was definitely the worst, there was also negative publicity surrounding another cast member, actress Letitia Wright, who has been vocally anti-vaccination during the pandemic. With all the bad press surrounding the movie, people were beginning to wonder if the movie might ever get a release at all on the silver screen, or would Disney just end up burying it on streaming or home video. Fortunately, the movie as finally found a way to the big screen, albeit with little fanfare, and a sadly unimportant February release date, putting it well outside awards contention that some might have hoped it would carry. So, with all that drama surrounding the movie itself, can it stand well enough on it’s own or is it another casualty of multiple real world issues that were not it’s fault.
The movie finds Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) enjoying a bit of his celebrity status in the years after his renowned solving of the Murder on the Orient Express. While visiting a night club in London, he witnesses a meeting between two engaged socialites, Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and Jaqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), and a wealthy heiress that they hope to do business with: Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot). Several months later, while on holiday to Egypt, Poirot stumbles upon a newlywed honeymoon party involving Mr. Doyle and Ms. Ridgeway, who are now married to each other. Among the fellow travelers with the newlyweds, there is Linnet’s cousin and lawyer Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal); Dr. Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand) who’s also Linnet’s former fiancée; Linnet’s godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French); blues musician Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright), whose also Salome’s manager and former schoolmate of Linnet; Linnet’s maid Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie); and finally Poirot’s old acquaintance Bouc (Tom Bateman) whom he met on the Orient Express, as well as Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Benning), whose a longtime friend of Linnet’s family. The opulent celebration begins in luxury at a resort on the banks of the Nile River, and Poirot soon is welcomed to stay. However, tension arises when Jaqueline de Bellefort crashes the party, making Linnet feel threatened after having stolen Jaqueline’s man away. Linnet, knowing of Poirot’s talents as an investigator, asks for his help in learning of Bellefort’s intentions. Poirot soon learns that Ms. Bellefort is carrying around a weapon on her, and advises that the newlyweds cut their trip short for their own safety. Instead, the party moves out of the resort by chartering a cruise to take them on a Nile excursion, hoping to keep the party safe and private. Poirot again accompanies them. But, even as they make their way south on the river and away from civilization, they soon learn that even out in the wild there is no escaping danger. Suddenly, the unthinkable happens; murder. And of course Hercule Poirot is instinctively on the job.
It was a hard road for this version of Death on the Nile to make it to the big screen; another unfortunate exile of the pandemic ravaged 2020 calendar and a subsequent victim of the scandals of those involved with the movie. It thankfully hasn’t affected Kenneth Branagh too much, since he’s managed to keep on working; shooting, editing, and releasing his new acclaimed Oscar-nominated film Belfast in the midst of all this turmoil. Unfortunately, any hope of molding these Poirot films of his into a sustaining franchise seems to be dashed, as Death on the Nile arrives finally as little more than an afterthought in Hollywood. Like I said before, the scandals that have accompanied it are drawing more attention than the movie itself. But, is it a bad reflection on the movie, and should it be judged on that bad press alone. The movie certainly should be judged purely on the craft itself, divorced of real world issues. Sadly, the movie is a mixed bag overall. It’s definitely a well crafted movie from an experienced and passionate filmmaker, and there are individually some fine moments throughout the movie. But, it’s also kind of a dull film overall as well. In some ways, I think the success of Knives Out may have also worked against Death on the Nile as well, because of how expertly it took the same kind of story and reinvented it. Branagh’s approach by comparison is very by the book. There’s nothing wrong with staying truthful to the writing of Agatha Christie: she was certainly ahead of her time and her stories still have the power to engage many years later. But, while Knives Out felt very much like a modernization that help to rejuvenate a classic style of story, Death on the Nile feels old-fashioned, and not exactly in a good way either. You can really feel the convention constraints weighing down this movie, as Branagh really tries to struggle to make something that shouldn’t be action packed feel much more bombastic. We know Branagh can make exciting cinema, as evidenced by his Shakespearean work as well as his work on Marvel’s Thor (2011), but that cinematic instinct feels misplaced here. You can feel him straining with the material, and unfortunately it makes many scenes feel silly instead of majestic. And by the way, it’s a problem that I found with Murder on the Orient Express as well though not quite as glaringly pronounced as it is here.
The first thing that really feels off about the movie is the artificiality of it all. It will probably surprise no one to know that not a single moment of this movie was shot on location in the real Egypt. That shouldn’t have been a problem as most other places can just as easily be substituted as another location. But, because of the movie’s original production delay during the Disney merger with Fox, the movie even had to scrap it’s location shoot in Morocco. As a result, the entire movie, from the Nile side resort to the boat voyage itself was produced on soundstages in England. That’s a big difference from how Branagh and company approached the production of Murder on the Orient Express, which did benefit from on location shooting in Israel, Turkey, and Switzerland. That on location shooting helped to make that movie feel bigger, even though most of that movie was contained to a single location of the titular train. Death on the Nile by contrast feels very small despite the grandiosity of it’s setting. This is especially evident when the movie arrives at an exotic location like the Abu Simbel Temple. It’s very clear by the pristine nature of the set, and the too perfect way that it is lit, that this is just a fabricated replica of a real place, and it takes you out of the movie as a result. It doesn’t help that the movie also makes liberal use of CGI to expand the horizon and convince you that these characters are out in the great outdoors. There’s just a definite sense of these actors performing against a blue screen, as the backgrounds feel flat behind the actors. Truth be told, I have seen worse usage of CGI to hide the fact that the actors are working on a soundstage, but it really feels like it doesn’t belong in this kind of story. Whenever Branagh leaves the sweeping panorama shots behind, the movie does look a whole lot better, and it does excel quite a bit in the staging of the interiors, but every time the movie tries to recreate the expanse of it’s exotic Egyptian location, it doesn’t feel right at all.
There are still quite a few things that do make the movie enjoyable at times. The cast for one is enjoyable to watch, and some are even quite surprisingly adept in unconventional roles. Shining most bright unsurprisingly is Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. You can tell that he has a lot of fun playing this character and it’s probably what drew him to making these Agatha Christie adaptations in the first place. Just as he did in Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh makes Poirot an engaging presence; someone who you just love to watch work and figure out the truth behind an almost unsolvable case in front of him. I especially like the way he manages to find the humor within the character without turning him into a caricature. There’s a funny little moment when one of the characters in the movie gets offended that Poirot is accusing her of murder, until he confesses that he accuses everyone of murder and that it’s an unfortunate habit of his. That’s a nice, clever way of making Poirot an endearing, eccentric figure in this story. Branagh’s choices of co-stars are interesting too, keeping true to the old Hollywood tradition of all-star casts in whodunit mysteries. I especially like the way he’s brought on actors known more for comedy like Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Russell Brand and having them play against type here. Brand especially is out of character her based on the celebrity persona he’s put on throughout the years, and it’s kind of refreshing to see him flex a bit more in a dramatic role for a change. Gal Gadot also brings a nice haunted presence to the movie, again showing more range than what we’ve seen thus far from the Wonder Woman star. The big question is, how do the actors carrying around the scandal baggage fair in this movie. Certainly Letitia Wright fares better, as she manages to disappear into her character pretty well; even making her Southern American accent sound fairly spot on, as does her co-star and fellow brit Sophie Okenedo. Armie Hammer unfortunately can’t make you forget about his off-screen scandals with his more hammy performance. In some ways, it can be overlooked, because his character is a creep to begin with, but there’s just not enough goodwill built up throughout the film to make you admire his work alone in the film, and it certainly won’t work in helping him to resurrect his tarnished image. Who knows if this may end up being the last we see of Mr. Hammer on the big screen. If so, it’s a less than ideal exit.
Despite the artificiality of the film in it’s depiction of it’s location, I will say that the production design itself still represents some incredible work from the crew that worked on the film. The boat that serves as the primary location for the film, known as the Karnack, almost becomes a character within the film itself. I especially like how the details of the boat comes through; with it’s weather worn siding showing the effects of the harsh desert heat on the white-washed paint job, to the art deco inspired interiors of the parlor and dining rooms. There’s also quite a bit of interesting staging throughout the movie involving the panoramic glass walls that encircle the action around the characters. That’s why the scenes that take place indoors feel much more dynamic than those outdoors; because we are looking at stuff that’s actually tangible and real. Kenneth Branagh also give the movie a nice rich texture by having it shot on 65mm film; a favorite film stock that he’s used through most of his career. The large format film stock really helps to bring out the detail of the scenes, particularly the interior ones, and it will enhance the viewing experience if you manage to see the movie in the way that Branagh prefers: with 70mm projection. Branagh, by all accounts, is a filmmaker with a love of cinema, and he shows a lot of care in the staging of his scenes in this movie. There’s one neat moment in the movie where he has the camera glide through the setting, passing by all of the characters (i.e. suspects) like you’re seeing them appear from Poirot’s point of view. It’s a shot that echoes a similar one in Murder on the Orient Express. And what it does really well is present the idea that any one of these characters is capable of being a murderer, putting the audience in the same mindset as Poirot purely through visual language. In less capable hands, the mystery may have been spoiled by the director very obviously pushing the narrative in an obvious direction, but Branagh manages to expertly keep his audience guessing, helping to make the final reveal feel like an earned surprise. Despite it’s old fashioned feel, Branagh still manages to make his mystery work on screen, which manages to be especially effective if you aren’t already familiar with the original Christie story. And it’s through that expert direct that the movie in many ways overcomes some of it’s shortcomings, even though it doesn’t entirely propel the movie any further than just being okay.
Overall, the narrative behind the making of this movie unfortunately overshadows the film itself. It would’ve been interesting to see how this movie would’ve been accepted in a different timeline when there was no pandemic and the actors involved turned out to not have any problematic issues that reflected badly on the film. The saddest part is that Kenneth Branagh’s larger plans to keep making more Poirot films seem to be dashed, as this film is unlikely to inspire it’s new handlers (Disney) to invest anything more into a franchise. The fact that it managed to get a theatrical run at all in the face of everything seems like it will be the movie’s only triumph in the end; and a minor one at that. The film, in a sense, is just an unfortunate byproduct of a Hollywood that no longer exists, and will likely see more movies like it disappear from the screen for a while as the Knives Outs of the world take over. But, it’s thankfully not something to make Branagh feel ashamed in the long run. It’s certainly a much better movie than his other pandemic affected film; the dismal Artemis Fowl (2020). And like I said, he’s currently riding the accolades of his award winning Belfast (2021), a movie that certainly hits far closer to home personally for him. The Poirot films will probably be seen as an admirable exercise in old school filmmaking for him as a director and performer. Is the movie worth going out to see on the big screen? Depends on if this is the kind of movie that fits your appeal. If you like star-studded whodunit mysteries, than this might be a satisfying if not ground-breaking diversion for you to see. If it’s available in your area to see in 70mm large format, than even better. But, at the same time, it’s nothing particularly special either. Just a well crafted, old-fashioned by-the-book adaptation. My hope is that no one is going to this movie to see Armie Hammer’s reputation cleared up; the movie does little in that regard and nor should it. That’s his mess to clean up. Death on the Nile is a flawed but competent film that more or less treats the work of Agatha Christie with reverence and respect. It’s just unfortunately a movie that can’t separate itself from a lot of bad fortune, and hopefully time will be a lot kinder to it in the years after it’s release.