A glossy but faithful 2017 adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie whodunnit, Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” remains one of the few Hollywood movies in recent memory that managed to become a bonafide hit despite the complete absence of spandex or symbiotes, and you don’t need to be a world-class detective to sniff out the reasons why. Brand recognition did a lot of the heavy lifting (as it so often does these days), but the film also boasted at least three other undeniable advantages: The star power of its cast, the sumptuousness of its 65mm cinematography, and the IMAX-worthy size of its lead mustache — an ear-to-ear crumb-catcher big enough to hide a Christmas ham.
That “Death on the Nile” is a more satisfying mystery in almost every respect (and the best Kenneth Branagh movie of the last six months) has a lot to do with its source material, which eschews the twisty legalese of “Murder on the Orient Express” in favor of human pathos and crimes of the heart. And yet, the real strength of Branagh’s seemingly cursed second outing as detective Hercule Poirot — a movie postponed by COVID and hexed with actors (plural!) who spent the pandemic sabotaging their careers — is that it doubles down on what the first one did so well.
The cast might not be quite as stacked (it’s hard to compete with something that includes Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, and kills off Johnny Depp), but they all get more to do. A riverboat in colonialist Egypt might be a more complicated setting than a stalled train car in the middle of nowhere, but the Pyramids of Giza have seldom looked as pristine as they do here. And Poirot’s massive ‘stache may not be any bigger than it was before (though it’s still the largest caterpillar you’ll see outside “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”), but it definitely makes a stronger impression.
Indeed, the entirety of “Death on the Nile” unfolds in the shadow of Poirot’s epic lip foliage, as Michael Green’s (largely by-the-book) screenplay kicks off by inventing the longest and most serious origin story that any cinematic mustache has ever received. The film begins in the trenches of World War I, where a clean-shaven young Poirot — Branagh, digitally de-aged to the point where he looks more like Jean Gabin — uses his big detective brain to save an entire unit of the French army from certain death. Alas, and by no fault of Poirot’s, the plan blows up in his face, leaving him with scars above and on both sides of his mouth.
Despite his paramour’s insistence that true love could never be impeded by someone’s looks, their relationship is an ancient memory by the time the film jumps forward to the 1930s; the finicky and control-obsessed Poirot has devoted his life to the study of clear evidence and hard facts, and the idea of surrendering himself to the illogical desires of the heart fills him with dread. Instead of making himself vulnerable — or even a potential victim — Poirot would rather live his life from behind the safety of a flavor-saver so thick that it could’ve saved Proust the headache of having to remember the taste of madeleines. As the great detective puts it upon watching a penniless human sausage named Simon Doyle share a dance with his new fiancée’s ravishing and extremely rich best friend: “Ah, love. It is not safe.”
Quite the opposite, in fact — especially when Armie Hammer is involved. The Simon Doyle situation is so fraught with danger that every new detail we learn about it seems to support the wisdom of Poirot’s self-imposed singledom. Simon, it turns out, decided to jilt Jacqueline de Bellefort (“Sex Education” breakout Emma Mackey, making a solid bid for movie stardom) in favor of marrying Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot), the stunning heiress introduced to him by his ex-bride-to-be. Imagine that.
When Poirot (randomly?) bumps into the newlyweds on their Egyptian honeymoon just a few short weeks later, there’s already trouble in paradise: Jacqueline is stalking the lovebirds everywhere they go. Already frayed by the justifiable paranoia that even her most trusted friends want a piece of her money, Linnet buys passage for her entire wedding party aboard the S.S. Karnak in the hopes that a trip down the Nile might afford her some peace and quiet. Alas, Jacqueline is there too, and not everyone will survive their first night on the boat.
It goes without saying that Simon, Jacqueline, and Linnet are surrounded by a murderer’s row of plausible suspects, many of whom have been slightly rejiggered for this adaptation. Of greatest interest — if also least suspicion — is Poirot’s dashing friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), if only because he’s the only character who returns from the detective’s fateful trip aboard the Orient Express. This time, our dear Bouc is accompanied by his mother, a rather severe woman played by Annette Bening in a stony performance that screams “I might seem lost in the crowd but my character is definitely gonna do something important by the time this is over.”
The same could be said for most of the characters in this movie at one point or another, as Branagh savors Christie’s gift for balancing motive with opportunity, and subjects almost everyone aboard the Karnak to an equal share of Poirot’s interrogative attention. Branagh had fun with the detective’s “accuse first, accept an iron-clad alibi later” approach in the previous movie, but he really makes a meal of it here — all the better to convey how difficult it can be to accept love in your life when you feverishly blame everyone you meet of committing an elaborate murder. If that method slows the film’s second act into a repetitive series of mile-a-minute monologues, it helps that Branagh’s supporting all bring a little something to the table.
Sophie Okonedo is a smokey-throated vision as jazz chanteuse Salome Otterbourne, whose experiences with white people over the years have left her as watchful for hate as Poirot is wary of love; everyone in the cast looks stunning in Paco Delgado and JobanJit Singh’s lavish period costumes, but Okonedo truly makes them sing. Letitia Wright, who seems to have made it through this film’s pre-COVID shoot without injury, nearly slathers her performance as Salome’s niece and business manager with a too-heavy serving of Southern charm, but there’s an elusive strength to Wright’s performance that allows Rosalie to become a natural fulcrum for the drama around her. Rose Leslie — whose character is not named Rosalie — makes the most of her thankless role as Linnet’s needlessly French maid, while Russell Brand is rather marvelously cast against type as a soft-spoken doctor with a broken heart.
If anything, Brand brings more pathos to the part than Branagh has the bandwidth to accommodate, and the same holds true for Ali Fazal’s turn as Linnet’s lawyer; the Bollywood star has preemptively lowered fan expectations regarding his screen time, but his performance still demands more context than his character receives. Jennifer Saunders and her comedy partner Dawn French bring a punch of personality and a tiny dash of progressivism to Communist socialite Marie Van Schuyler and her companion Mrs. Bowers, but their roles are limited by their function as constant witnesses and comic relief.
The film’s laughs run about as deep as its anti-capitalist commentary, as Branagh leans on a menacingly jovial tone for humor in much the same way as he milks a tourist’s vision of Egypt for ambiance; that formula may feel a tad prosaic in the age of “Knives Out,” but “Death on the Nile” works because of how effortlessly — and sometimes even charmingly — it bridges the gap between old-fashioned entertainment and modern appetites.
Expensive but never fancy, and solid enough to emit a faint whiff of sophistication, this entire project is powered by the same eccentric confidence that allows Branagh to play Hercule Poirot like a neutered Pepé le Pew. The director-star’s faith in the enduring sturdiness of Christie’s storytelling gives him permission to ease up on the throttle, cool it with the dutch angles, and let viewers get swept along the gentle currents of the Nile as Poirot surrenders to a natural force of a different kind. This whodunnit has stood the test of time like a wonder of the ancient world, but Branagh’s version of it won’t be remembered for the murder that Poirot solves so much as it will for how that murder solves him in return.
20th Century Studios will release “Death on the Nile” in theaters on Friday, February 11.