The whodunit is a near-perfect format for film. It has a built-in structure of introducing characters, establishing goals and then solving the case, with a twist or two along the way. A select group of suspects allows for a variety of personality types to interact and play off each other, and these roles can be played by movie stars and/or beloved character actors that draw in audiences and critics alike. The subgenre is also malleable enough that it can dip its toes into other tones and categories — whether it be suspense, action or comedy — while the nature of uncovering the truth engages viewers to try to solve it for themselves.
But like most things in entertainment, it’s the execution that matters. “Clue,” “Knives Out” and the new Apple TV+ show “The Afterparty” allow for inventive filmmaking that combines humor with danger and true character development that make audiences care about the investigation as much as the resolution. “Death on the Nile” has all the makings of a sumptuous spectacle, with fun archetypes in a decadent setting to allow for equal parts humor and pathos. Unfortunately, director/star Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the Agatha Christie mystery is incredibly stilted and flat, rendering any intrigue or entertainment automatically inert and the whole proceedings a slog.
The greatest detective in the world, Hercule Poirot (Branagh), is visiting Egypt when he runs into his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), who is there with his mother (Annette Bening) to attend the honeymoon of their aristocratic friends. The wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) has married the not-so-wealthy Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), but their recent nuptials are darkened by the presence of Simon’s ex-fiancée and Linnet’s former friend, Jacqueline (Emma Mackey). The newlyweds fear that Jacqueline will retaliate for the betrayal and implore Poirot to stay with the group to intercede any such dark machinations. The entire party has moved to a ship on the Nile when a murder occurs, and everyone becomes a suspect. That includes Bouc and his mother, as well as several of Linnet’s acquaintances, like her godmother (Jennifer Saunders), her former fiancé (Russell Brand), her childhood friend (Letitia Wright), her maid (Rose Leslie) and her lawyer (Ali Fazal).
Much like Branagh’s preceding Christie adaptation, “Murder on the Orient Express” (both adapted by Michael Green), “Death on the Nile” is an assembly of talented performers in excellent costumes and surrounded by beautiful sets with an intriguing mystery at its center that aggressively refuses to be engaging. There are set pieces in a nightclub, a pharaoh’s tomb and the resplendent boat that should be dynamic scenes but are flatly perfunctory. While Branagh and DP Haris Zambarloukos employ impressively orchestrated camera movements, they all feel devoid of energy.
“Death on the Nile” is hindered on many fronts that make it a tedious affair. First, there’s the script, which is full of baffling choices. The film begins with a flashback of Poirot in World War I, but the events could have easily been summarized in a few lines of dialogue later and really makes the entire sequence act as an origin for the Belgian detective’s mustache. Much is also made of Poirot’s objective, calculating and distant nature, but he’s shown again and again to be personable, engaging and capable of frivolity, which undercuts later sources of friction over his supposedly cold personality. And while it is a benchmark of Christie’s work, there are better ways of writing the confessional diatribes that characters impulsively deliver upon Poirot’s interrogations.
While the unnecessarily convoluted plot and the labyrinthine backstory of every character are inherited from the novel, it is made all the worst by some truly wretched performances. Gadot looks the part of the 1930s heiress beaming with love, but her acting is more wooden than the ship on which they travel, each line delivered with an odd lack of real emotion. Hammer also flounders in his part, as he tries to be engaging but instead feels like a cheap dinner theater knockoff comprised of affectations picked up from other movies. Brand lacks any real personality other than to be impertinent and defensive, while Fazal is given nothing to do for much of the film until he’s suddenly meant to be a central figure. Furthermore, Bening’s accent is so atrocious that it took me most of the film to even realize she was supposed to be British, and Leslie delivers her lines with the sort of accent reserved for stereotypical French maids of 1980s sex farces. Combining all these awful performances and terribly written roles creates a dull affair that saps most scenes of any entertainment value.
It’s hard to say if the other cast members shine brighter due to their own talents or simply in comparison to the shoddy turns by the aforementioned actors, but there is some good to be found here. Just like in “Orient Express,” Bateman brings humor, charm and energy to Bouc, which instills some sequences with the hope that they won’t feel as interminable as the rest. Wright delivers a fully realized role with a gamut of emotions and line deliveries that seem natural, no matter how full of exposition they may be, while Sophie Okonedo (as Wright’s blues-musician aunt) is given a chance to be funny, sultry and a real character who plays off those around her to escape what could be a thankless stereotype. And though Mackey often tips over into bathetic histrionics, it’s better than the cardboard alternative of many of her castmates.
Audiences will feel every minute of “Death on the Nile,” and that is the true crime in Branagh’s film. The wardrobe is fabulously curated along with the set and production design, but the filmmakers find ways to falter even in the latter, as the CG used for much of the depictions of Egypt robs any majesty from the cinematography (and there are many, many shots of these uncanny valleys). “Death on the Nile” has all the ingredients for an engaging film but instead delivers a waterlogged corpse of a movie.
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Letitia Wright, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Rose Leslie, Ali Fazal, Sophie Okonedo, Russell Brand, Emma Mackey
Director: Kenneth Branagh