After much delay and controversy, Kenneth Branagh’s second Agatha Christie movie, “Death on the Nile,” hits theaters. It’s better than the filmmaker’s 2017 “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which Branagh first played Belgian supersleuth Hercule Poirot. The new film is also preferable to John Guillerman’s 1978 “Nile” production. That one was creaky from the day it launched, even though Guillerman filmed in Egypt while Branagh made his version at an English studio with lots of CGI assistance.
Despite that, Branagh’s lush take on the musty material looks great and registers a pulse. Thank nimble, mobile camerawork and an ensemble that breathes life into a typical Christie lineup of motivated suspects. Overacting and silly lines sometimes distract, and the latter sound sillier in Branagh’s forced French accent (“Ah love, it is not safe”). Still, Branagh’s direction and screenwriter Michael Green, who also scripted “Orient,” add diversity and convincing emotions to the mystery mechanics.
Poirot is fleshed out, too. The film opens in the World War I trenches, where the future know-it-all detective is given tragic dimensions as well as an excuse to grow his trademark elaborate mustache.
Skip ahead to a 1937 London jazz club, where the core love triangle is introduced. Armie Hammer is the romantic lead; the film was shot before multiple allegations of sexual misconduct were made against the actor, and it would have been impossible to replace or erase him in postproduction. Knowing that, it can be disturbing to watch Hammer’s jobless charmer Simon Doyle do some mighty dirty dancing with his unapologetically passionate fiancee, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey of “Sex Education,” making an impression). That ends, though, when her old friend, loaded heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), makes her shimmering entrance.
Six weeks later, Linnet and Simon are honeymooning in Egypt. The ex is stalking them, so Linnet, whom Gadot plays as nice as a spoiled person can be, hires the luxury riverboat Karnak to paddle the wedding party out of the jilted lover’s reach.
That doesn’t work; Jacqui, palpably disturbed, sneaks on board. But she’s not the only guest with a grudge or a gun.
Poirot is there, along with his mystery-solving buddy Bouc (Tom Bateman of “Orient”), the English playboy who is now keen to settle down. Bouc is traveling with his mother, Euphemia (Annette Bening), a painter dead set against losing her son to another woman. She is a new character, and Bening effectively roots Euphemia’s ruthless protectiveness in her own romantic bitterness.
The Otterbournes stand out among several combined and reimagined roles, especially compared with earlier versions (has there ever been a worse movie drunk than Angela Lansbury’s?). Salome (Sophie Okonedo) is now an electric-guitar-slinging blueswoman along the lines of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, with Okonedo expertly lip-syncing to Tharpe’s recordings throughout the film’s many performance scenes. Her niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright) is Salome’s adept business manager. The characters lend some sharp African American perspectives to these snooty Europeans’ machinations. Just as crucial, they both know how to get under Poirot’s skin, and each brings out his vulnerable truths in her own way.
Also welcome aboard, the venerable British comedy team of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. They bring nice, nurturing elements to the rich witch and her Depression-ruined companion that Bette Davis and Maggie Smith played with arch malice in ’78. While these and others can make “Nile” seem like it’s happening to real people, the show remains a Christie contraption.
Overcomplicated schemes and clues are dutifully laid out — on occasion, as in one scene involving the boat’s side wheel, with Hitchcock-worthy visuals. The fake pyramids and giant Abu Simbel statues are presented in touristy golden light, and it looks like tanning spray was applied by the gallon. In the colonialist tradition, any local and Karnak crew member may as well be invisible.
So, as we already knew, this “Nile” won’t float everyone’s boat. But it’s a noticeable improvement over the usual all-star Christie mystery, and it doesn’t deserve to just sink out of sight.
** 1/2 Review
“Death on the Nile”
Rated: PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, and sexual material
Running time: 127 min
Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Death on the Nile’ imperfect but a cut above ‘Orient Express’ appeared first on maserietv.com.