Death on the Nile is a tender-hearted tragedy wrapped up in an Agatha Christie whodunit. A murder mystery filled with a cast of wounded souls. It’s a tone befitting the film’s bluesy soundtrack.
Kenneth Branagh returns as both director and as world-renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Chances are, if you didn’t like Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, you wouldn’t like this one. Granted, if the pandemic has shown me anything, it’s who knows about anything anymore.
Death on the Nile, adapted from Christie’s novel by Micahel Green, gives us a grand sweeping tale of love, romance, love loss, grief, and friendship. Bodies pile up, secrets are revealed, relationships tested, all while our characters are ostensibly trapped on a ship that languidly floats down the Nile. Of course, they aren’t trapped, but both Green and Branagh do a helluva job making it feel as if they are if by nothing else, trapped by cruel fate.
I enjoyed Branagh’s and Green’s last adaptation, but I adored Death on the Nile. Impressive considering that I had solved the mystery long before the movie reached the denouement. I say this not to brag but to implore how much fun I had with Death on the Nile. The power of a great whodunit is partially the mystery-but rare is the mystery that keeps you turning the page even if you’ve already solved it.
Branagh and Green give us a cast of characters that we want to follow from stem to stern to see what they have to say or what secret they will reveal. Death of the Nile is a movie where a character experiences an emotion; they must either explode or keep it barely contained with watery eyes and trembling lips. A melodrama of high society mixed with bloodthirsty greed and revenge, I was in.
Linnet (Gal Gadot) is a wealthy, beautiful, and gracious woman. Most people are fine if you are one or the other, but all three and you begin to invite enemies. Linnet’s not blameless; her new husband Simon (Armie Hammer) was engaged to her best friend Jackie (Emma Mackey), or he was until he met Linnet. Jackie is following them on their Egyptian honeymoon, spoiling their romance and driving poor Simon and Linnet to the edge.
Luckily, Hercule Poirot is, by chance, staying at the same Hotel as Simon and Linnet. Poirot’s good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), who we met in Murder on the Orient Express, is also there by happenstance. He’s staying with his mother, Euphemia (Annette Bening), as they travel across the globe. But Bouc isn’t there by accident, he knows Linnet, and he and his mother were invited to celebrate her nuptials.
But so was Linnet’s ex-fiance Dr. Windlesham (Russell Brand), her cousin in charge of her trustee Andrew (Ali Fazal), her godmother Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French), Bower’s nursemaid Miss Schyler (Jennifer Saunders), and Linnet’s own maid Louise (Rose Leslie). To say nothing of Linnet’s old school chum Rosalie (Letitia Wright) and her mother, the famous blues singer Salome (Sophie Okonedo). Still, this is a Christie novel, and hardly anyone is here merely by chance.
Branagh and his cameraman Haris Zambarloukos give Death on the Nile grandiosity by allowing characters grand entrances and sweeping exits. Sharp angles, flowing camera movements, all while stopping every once in and while to have an extended tracking shot to remind us all of who are the remaining guests, suspects, are. Zambarloukos makes every scene as if it was polished to a high gloss before being edited. There’s a sense of cheap luxury to Death on the Nile, a mixture of green screens, and the tongue-in-cheek murder mystery theater the movie harnesses so well.
Zambarloukos helps Branagh achieve his high drama. The sweeping camera movements fit the film’s tone and operatic emotionalism. Wright’s Rosalie, at one point, storms away with Poirot chasing after her. She turns on him and hisses, “Have you ever met a man who says his name more than Hercule-” her line is interrupted by the reveal of another dead body on the ship’s paddlewheel, Patrick Doyle’s bombastic score underlying the reveal.
Branagh brings it all together in a neatly wrapped bow. He does so while turning in a compelling performance himself, no easy task. Death on the Nile is filled with great performances from Annette Bening’s overprotective mother to Letitia Wright’s love-struck but cautious Rosalie. Okenodo’s Salome, a jazz singer who has captured Poirot’s curiosity and is equally intrigued by him as well, is a delight as she and Rosalie are the rare suspects. The two women are the rare people able to rock Poirot onto his heels.
But Mackey, as the jilted Jackie, almost steals the show. A seething, furious, sad concoction of emotions, she seems to either be on the verge of a nervous breakdown or ready to storm the front at equal turns. A woman ruled by her inflamed passions, she is a force that troubles Poirot even before the murder.
Death on the Nile has a deep sense of sadness and regret. Linnet is not an angel, but her death and the death of others seem to affect Poirot in a much more humane way, perhaps because death is only the hook. The real meat of Death on the Nile is love. The characters crave it, long for it, mourn it, and try their best not to lose it. There’s murder, yes, but it’s the way the characters talked so forlornly and passionately about love that makes Death on the Nile so absorbing.
Images courtesy of 20th Century Studios
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