There’s never been a crime writer quite like Agatha Christie. Her countless novels about pompous aristocrats meeting grisly ends have captivated millions of readers, and become the template for all murder-mysteries that have followed, ensuring her the undisputed Queen of the Whodunit. Christie’s legacy is further cemented by the multiple adaptations of her work, with this picture being one of the poorer examples.
Famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is sightseeing in Egypt when he encounters Bouc (Tom Bateman), an acquaintance from a previous case. Guy tells Poirot that he is in Northern Africa to attend a wedding between the wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and her working-class fiancé Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) who met only a matter of weeks prior in a London club – a meeting which, coincidentally, Poirot himself happened to observe.
The moustachioed sleuth is promptly invited by Guy to join the festivities, only for the celebrations to be dampened by the arrival of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), the ex-partner of Simon. Wanting to avoid the scornful gaze of his former lover, Simon and Linnet hire a paddle-steamer for the wedding party, Poirot included, to cruise the River Nile; but the danger is just as great on-board, because there are several guests who also have their grievances with the newlywedded couple.
Death on the Nile is the second of Christie’s mysteries to be adapted by Kenneth Branagh, who previously helmed and starred-in Murder on the Orient Express. The director once again plays the lead role of Poirot, and is joined by an ensemble cast of comedians (Russell Brand, Dawn French), young thespians (Ali Fazal, Rose Leslie), Britons playing American characters (Letitia Wright, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders) and, weirdly, Americans portraying British characters (Annette Benning, plus the aforementioned Hammer).
Like Orient Express, it’s a rather strange mix of talent that Branagh has opted to work with, and some of those choices are more peculiar than most. Chief among that cohort is Benning, who gives a decent performance as Bouc’s mother Euphemia, yet does so with a wavering, semi-convincing accent that proves a constant distraction – surely, she’d be better suited to playing the Marie Van Schuyler, as that character is an American; but instead, that role is inhabited by Britain’s own Jennifer Saunders, whose own accent is nothing to write home about.
Nor, for that matter, is the remainder of Nile, which pales when compared to its precursor in most respects. The warmth, quirkiness and verve present in Orient Express is lacking here, replaced with an overly-serious tone that allows no room for amusement; the pacing is woefully slow, with too many minutes spent delivering exposition; and the orchestral soundtrack of returning composer – and Branagh’s favoured collaborator – Patrick Doyle is even more bland and less inspiring than last time.
Yet by far the biggest grievance to be had with Death on the Nile is the awful digital effects. Oftentimes, on-location shoots in the natural beauty of Egypt are eschewed in favour of studios and a green-screen backdrop, with computer-generated environments added in post-production and zero effort made to disguise this fact. It’s not just the landscapes that are animated with computers, but the steam-boat too, its visuals rendered with such low quality that they rival the sweeping shots of the ill-fated cruiser in James Cameron’s Titanic for realism.
Blessedly, not all of Nile is appalling to witness. The costume designs of Paco Delgado are great, with the men looking particularly dapper in their colourful three-piece suits; the set design is reasonably attractive too, particularly the construction of the paddle-steamer’s interior. In terms of the narrative, Michael Green’s screenplay is mostly faithful to Christie’s book and remains absorbing, but the outcome will be obvious even to those who aren’t familiar with the story.
Although not without its pleasures, Death on the Nile is a rather insipid adaptation of a beloved Agatha Christie text. Kenneth Branagh’s sequel is marred by odd directorial choices, below-par effects and a general sense of dullness, stifling what should be an otherwise gripping tale. Cinemagoers are best advised to save their money and wait for the inevitable television screening, or arrival on Disney+.
This review was first published by Rating Frames on February 24th, 2022.