After a two-year delay due to the pandemic and “production issues” (code for “we have an Armie Hammer problem”), newly-minted Oscar winner Kenneth Branagh returns as the Belgian detective with the incredible moustache in another kick at the Agatha Christie murder-mystery can. This time it’s DEATH ON THE NILE, a remake of the 1978 film that headlined Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, with Branagh once again directing and co-producing.
This version begins with a bit of Poirot’s backstory from his time as a simple soldier fighting for his country in WWI. Even at a young age, Poirot demonstrates his finely-tuned powers of deduction and reason, but it’s not enough as tragedy visits him twice in short order, once which ultimately leads to him growing a curiously wide strip of hair over his upper lip. Fast forward to 1937 and Poirot is in Egypt taking in the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx when he runs into his old friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS), who is there with his painter mother, Euphemia (Annette Bening, CAPTAIN MARVEL; FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL). Bouc introduces Poirot to heiress Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot, RED NOTICE; WONDER WOMAN 1984), who is in the country to celebrate her wedding to Simon (Armie Hammer, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME) but it’s not the first time that Poirot and the Doyles’ paths have crossed. Linnet invites Poirot to join them on their honeymoon cruise on the Nile along with an assortment of friends, associates and past lovers including Linnet’s personal maid, Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie, GOT); her godmother and the woman’s personal nurse, Marie Van Schuyler and Mrs. Bowers (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, TV’s FRENCH AND SAUNDERS) respectively; her former classmate and that woman’s jazz singer aunt, Rosalie and Salome Otterbourne (Letitia Wright, BLACK PANTHER, and Sophie Okonedo, WILD ROSE) respectively; Linnet’s former lover, Dr. Linus Windlesham (comedian Russell Brand); and her cousin and trustee, Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal, VICTORIA & ABDUL). As the boat makes its way to the Temple of Abu Simbel, an uninvited guest comes aboard – Jackie de Bellefort (Emma Mackey, TV’s SEX EDUCATION), Linnet’s former friend and Simon’s ex-lover. Needless to say, it’s not long before someone ends up being murdered.
Screenwriter Michael Green (JUNGLE CRUISE; MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS; BLADE RUNNER 2049; ALIEN: COVENANT; LOGAN) updates both Christie’s original story and the 1978 movie, adding in some details of Poirot’s earlier life, changing some of the characters’ occupations and throwing in a couple of 21st century touches like racism and a same-sex relationship. Unfortunately, the film sputters through its first half as each character is introduced and their motivations are revealed. Once the murders start happening, however, the pace then picks up and it’s smooth sailing ahead. Curiously, Branagh has asked many of his fellow actors to adopt foreign accents for their roles – Wright and Okonedo, who are both British, put on American accents; and Hammer and Bening, who are both American, put on British accents, though Bening seems to lose hers from time to time. Leslie, who is Scottish, puts on a French accent; Fazal, who is Indian, puts on a sort of a British accent; and Branagh, who is Irish, puts on a melange of a French and Belgian accent. For a wealthy heiress who probably went to boarding school in the UK, Linnet’s accent is rather ambiguous and the fact that she and Rosalie went to school together makes each of their accents rather odd.
As he did with MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, Branagh relies heavily on green screen technology to simulate his locations and it’s quite obvious that not one actor was anywhere close to being in Egypt during the filming. The sets have a Disneyland look to them, which is appropriate as Disney now owns 20th Century Studios. I doubt audiences are fooled into thinking that the locations are real.
The biggest weakness with the film, though, is that it doesn’t pop. It’s a costume drama with a star-studded cast. That’s it. Yes, it’s entertaining and competently made but there’s nothing special about it. That being said, however, there is already talk of another sequel in development even though this film has failed to shine at the box office. These days, that doesn’t seem to matter very much to the major studios though. Their strategy is to continue milking their existing IP until the next comic book superhero blockbuster comes along.
DEATH ON THE NILE is available on HBO Max, Hulu or Disney+ depending on where you live. If you’re already paying for one of these services, then watch the film. If not, you can safely skip it and sleep well at night.
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