Kenneth Branagh has charm and can easily win an audience over. There is no denying that the man who has been performing on screen for over three decades can find a way to get you to not only root for him, but also want to be friends with him. There is a great passion behind almost everything he does, take any of his Shakespeare adaptations and it is clear that he is not only one of the finest living performers of the Bard’s works but also someone who lives to tell his stories. Unfortunately, this passion doesn’t always come with the proper skill sets. Over the past decade Branagh has moved away from Shakespearean directing and more towards big blockbusters. Here he as struggled to maintain a coherent voice whether it be Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit or the disastrous Artemis Fowl. Yet he still holds dear to his heart the idea of adapting another masterminds’ works; Agatha Christie. In 2017 his take on The Murder on the Orient Express proved that old fashioned murder mysteries can still be a box office success. It also didn’t hurt that he had a loaded cast that included Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad oh and Johnny Depp to name a few. He himself took on the role of the infamous and extravagant detective Hercule Poirot. It was clear that a sequel was on the way. What wasn’t clear were the many problems that would face the film both on and off screen.
It is only fitting that Branagh would adapt another one of Christie’s most famous works, The Death on the Nile a story of murder that delves into an anti-capitalist undertone with peculiar and memorable characters. This is how Christie wrote it, the same can not be said for Branagh’s vision once again directed and starring himself in the lead role and with a screenplay by Michael Green (who also wrote Orient Express). This time around the screenplay delivers A list stars in replace of writing intriguing characters. There is no way to discuss the cast without hitting quite a few speed bumps that occurred off screen. There is Armie Hammer (fresh off his allegations of sexual misconduct), Gal Gadot (creating a stir on social media for allegations of zionism), Letita Wright (an open anti-vaxxer causing delays on another film set), Russell Brand (allegations of spreading misinformation on the ongoing pandemic), as well as a returning cast member Tom Bateman, Emma Mackey and Annette Benning (all delightful and allegation free!) If all of this sounds exhausting and unnecessary to enjoy the film then to each their own. Instead let their performances do the talking (you’re going to regret that too). This cast of big names can not find a way to bring any charm to the characters who are supposed to bring mystery, intrigue and dangerous sex appeal. It all starts with the marriage of Simon Doyle (Hammer) and Linnet Ridgeway (Gadot). Linnet is extremely wealthy and a fascinating woman to Doyle who broke off his engagement to Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey doing her best to create stardom and succeeding quite well). The idea of love being something that can be broken haunts Detective Poirot. It is here where Branagh does his best at attempting some sense of deeper feeling to his film with this motif of love loss and the pain endured from it. This is where Poirot’s character grows away from just a caricature that he was in Orient Express. It isn’t long before Poirot accepts Ridgeway’s invitation to join them on their honeymoon ferry ride, and before you can drink your champagne the film is off on its excursion riddled with eye sore cinematography (seriously why does this all look like it was shot on a green screen). But why does Poirot (who claims to be on Holiday avoiding all cases) so eagerly partake in the festivities? Maybe it is the idea of seeing a love grow in front of him that causes him to join the newlyweds or maybe just like the group of friends and family that join Ridgeway he too has ulterior motives.
By the time we get to meet these new characters and soon to be suspects our interest has already started to dwindle. No not because the murder still hasn’t taken place, but because there is now a big concern for when we get to the murder and that is, will we even care? We are introduced to Ridgeway’s cousin and lawyer Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), Louise Bourget a chambermaid (Rose Leslie) her former fiancé Windlesham (Russell Brand doing his best at being casted off character) and her childhood friend Rosalie Otterbourne (Letitia Wright) who brings her mother, a band leader, Salome (Sophie Okonedo). Somehow also included is Monsieur Bouc a shared friend of Poirot and Ridgeway played by Tom Bateman who also starred in Orient. With this long list of characters and Jacqueline tailing their every move murder has to be right around the corner, and excitement must come along, right? Branagh somehow loses even more steam once the murder of Ridgeway occurs. Instead of a clever and comical examination of each character and their motives we instead get dragged along for several tedious conversations where each actor feels asleep at the wheel. Even when a second act twist of Poirot’s true motives are revealed the moment is brought down by another character’s performance that can only be described as failed Oscar campaign.
There are some saving graces that even when cut short give some life to this otherwise slog. There is the inevitable reveal all third which plays as a fun moment for Emma Mackey who gets to unleash some pain that was being carried throughout the film. To be fair most of the characters could have been given more room to shine for themselves and less dedicated to acting off Branagh as Poirot. While Poirot may be the troubled soul to guide the film there needs to be less focus on him if he wants these films to hold up any interest in a revolving door of characters. Two films in and Branagh has yet to prove a point for the need of these adaptions (box office has and may continue to say otherwise) but if they are going to continue, he needs to remember that while it is good to have a heartfelt character, when it comes to murder you still need that intrigue.
DEATH ON THE NILE is currently in theaters