Death on the Nile Is a Lifeless, Plodding Take on Agatha Christie
Kenneth Branagh's murder mystery lacks glamour.
The old-school appeal of a big-budget period murder mystery like Death on the Nile—Directed by Kenneth Branagh! Based on an Agatha Christie novel! With movie stars you've heard of! Shot before the pandemic!—is supposed to rely on a surfeit of silver screen glamour: glamorous people, glamorous costumes, glamorous settings, and thus, in the end, a glamorous movie.
As for the first, well, I suppose Gal Gadot, who plays a wealthy heiress, can claim a share. But Armie Hammer? Russell Brand? I have no problem with either, but they have all the ineffable Hollywood glow of YouTube interview show hosts. I kept expecting them to appear in scenes with podcast mics and beanies and poor lighting.
The costumes are fine, I suppose, although they never quite wow. There is something stage-y about the various suits and dresses, as if they were borrowed from a particularly well-stocked community theater wardrobe.
But the settings are where this movie really lost me. The movie is set on a boat traveling—you guessed it—the Nile, which in this case means is largely set on a set built to look like a boat, surrounded by digital waters and sunsets inserted after the fact. This is not too distracting when the characters are fully inside with no exteriors in view, but much of the action is set on the ship's deck, and the boat is built to have windows looking out from nearly every room, so that you are always reminded of what's (not) outside.
For what Gadot and her not-so-glamorous co-stars are looking out on is digital scenery, a hokey virtual Egypt, as if the characters had all stumbled into yet another interminable sequel to the video game Assassin's Creed. Everything about it feels ever-so-slightly wrong: the light, the shape of the river, the texture of the sand. It's like the characters are sailing through the Uncanny Valley of the Kings. At one point, a character suggests escaping from the boat and running away. To where? The green screen warehouse next door?
This lack of dazzle would be more tolerable if the story had more verve. Sadly, the various setups, intrigues, and inevitable twists and turns before the big reveal are laid out with all the thrill of a tortoise race—one where you can see the winner from the start.
Part of the problem is that the movie's main event doesn't happen until an hour in. I would like to give this movie credit for careful pacing and the methodical building of tension, but instead it just comes off as plodding. It's fairly clear who the victim is going to be long before the murder happens, and equally clear who the "who" is in the "whodunit," even before the "it" happens.
That's a problem for a movie about a supposedly genius super-sleuth who can see all the angles: You can see who is going to be killed from the get-go, and also by whom. Why can't he?
As played by Branagh, reprising the role he played in 2017's Murder on the Orient Express, the mustachioed investigator Hercule Poirot is probably the best thing about the movie—he's charming and slightly loopy and inquisitive, and his mustache is, indeed, rather impressive.
But Branagh's Poirot is also strangely modern. Poirot was the protagonist of multiple Christie mystery novels, and in her telling, he was a clever noticer of the physical world and expert observer of human weakness. He didn't just know what people did; he understood why. At the same time, there was something ordinary, even unassuming, about him. He could see what others could not in part because others failed to sufficiently see and appreciate him.
Branagh's Poirot, in contrast, comes across more like a detective superhero, with observational abilities that are effectively superpowers, and whose defining attribute is his comically large and well-manicured mustache. Death on the Nile even begins with a tragic origin story that explains how he got his mustache. It's an odd choice, especially since it doesn't really affect anything that happens later in the film. It's a setup without a payoff. But it does make the movie's Poirot a little more like a Marvel hero.
I wanted to like this movie, and I suspect some viewers will appreciate the attempt at something like classic Hollywood filmmaking for adults. (Not that adults are going to see many movies these days.) But it simply doesn't compare to star-studded studio affairs from eras past, nor does it work on its own terms. And anyone who says otherwise is, well, in de-Nile.