Death On The Nile Review: A Mystery That Floats Adrift Quickly

Potential spoilers for "Death on the Nile," a book initially published 85 years ago, follow.

A good sequel is often heavily reliant on timing. It's not just the timing of storytelling beats, but the timing of when the sequel arrives to begin with. The 2017 film "Murder on the Orient Express", Kenneth Branagh's first go-round as the flamboyant and shrewd detective Hercule Poirot, one of author Agatha Christie's greatest creations, was a solid success at the box office, and a pleasantly diverting mystery bolstered by a stacked ensemble cast. So naturally, the studio decided to make a sequel, and there are plenty more Poirot stories from which to mine. It is equally natural that Branagh, as both director and star, and screenwriter Michael Green chose "Death on the Nile." It, too, has a travelogue element, a big ensemble cast, a horrific yet baffling murder, and plenty of room for Poirot to strut his stuff. That, unfortunately, is where the logical choices end with "Death on the Nile," which is an aggressively misguided, strangely dour affair that starts off bad and only gets worse.

This time around, Poirot is in Egypt, purportedly taking a vacation from the caseload that has turned him into a celebrity. By coincidence (or perhaps not), he stumbles upon his sleuthing partner from the last mystery, Bouc (Tom Bateman), flying a kite on one of the Egyptian pyramids. Bouc genially invites Poirot to join a wedding party his wealthy-yet-imperious mother (Annette Bening) is hosting for two gorgeous newlyweds: Simon (Armie Hammer) and Linnet (Gal Gadot), who Poirot coincidentally had glimpsed at their first meeting in London mere weeks ago. Their whirlwind romance has left at least two very angry ex-lovers: Simon's ex-fiancee Jacqueline (Emma Mackey) and Linnet's ex, Dr. Windlesham (Russell Brand). When they invite the whole party — also including an American blues singer (Sophie Okonedo) and her manager/niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright), as well as Linnet's godmother (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse (Dawn French) — onto a steamer down the Nile, all goes well ... until Linnet winds up dead in her room one night. Poirot, naturally, is on the case.

Some of the timing that fells "Death on the Nile" cannot be helped, for anyone with more than a passing awareness of celebrity news within the last year, say, regarding allegations of sexual abuse towards Hammer; or the implications that Wright may have resisted the COVID-19 vaccine and promoted anti-vaccination information in public; or Gadot's tone-deaf "Imagine" video from the beginning of the pandemic. In truth, the only one of these bits of real-world news that hurts "Death on the Nile" is in regards to Hammer, whose character Simon is first introduced in a darkened London nightclub, all but having intense and sweaty sex with Jacqueline on the dance floor. The scene is awkward no matter what — roughly as awkward as a later scene in which Linnet and Simon have a rough flirtation in the middle of an Egyptian temple — but more so when you remember why it is we haven't heard from Hammer lately. 

But again: that's not on Branagh. What is on Branagh is the immediate choice to make this "Death on the Nile" portentous, with a low-key and dark score from longtime collaborator Patrick Doyle, and a black-and-white flashback to World War I that initially feels like Branagh trying to briefly ape Sam Mendes with his one-take "1917." This flashback also includes what is arguably one of the dumbest, most laughable, and painful origin-style stories this side of "Gee, why is Han Solo's last name Solo anyway?" If anything, this origin of sorts is worse than the explanation from "Solo: A Star Wars Story", because not only are we all given an answer to a question that has truly kept millions of people awake at night ("How is it that Hercule Poirot decided to grow his mustache?"), but that question turns into a near-character arc.

An Absolute Misfire

Yet what sinks "Death on the Nile" (you cannot expect me to avoid any water-based puns in this review, I'm sorry to say) isn't even the backstory surrounding Hercule Poirot's mustache, no matter how silly that collection of words is. It's that the ensemble here — perhaps excluding Branagh and Bateman, and only in a couple of scenes — are working very hard at giving very bad performances indeed. Some of it comes down to the casting asking the actors to not only wear distinctive costumes but speak in distinctive accents that prove too difficult. That's a large part of what hampers the performances from Hammer (whose Simon is a Brit), Okonedo and Wright, and even the usually luminous Annette Bening, whose character is close to the most fascinating and tragic in terms of her fear and cynicism towards love ... but whose accent is mangled. 

There is also the fact that, for a movie called "Death on the Nile," this takes a much longer time than expected to arrive at a ... death ... on the Nile. As in, if you were concerned all you'd get of Gadot's performance is that frequently mocked "Enough champagne to fill the Nile!" line, fret not: she's in an hour of this thing. That leaves just the second hour for Poirot to start interrogating the various attendees of the floating wedding party. On one hand, that also means the second hour is much more swiftly paced, to the point where Poirot's inevitable explanation of whodunit at the end feels like it comes awfully quick after the eponymous death on the Nile. But what should be a suspenseful buildup in its first half is instead sluggish and turgid conversations set seemingly against green screen after green screen standing in for Egyptian backdrops. 

Last week, Netflix teased the arrival of a slew of new movies, including a very brief glimpse of "Knives Out 2" (or whatever it may end up being called). That film, like "Death on the Nile," is (we can safely presume) an intricate murder mystery with a flowery detective at its center, an ensemble cast, and set in a foreign country. (What little has been revealed about the film also implies it, too, will be set on a boat, at least somewhat.) Watching Branagh's "Death on the Nile", with its muddled direction, unnecessarily slow pacing, bad acting, and failed attempts at profundity, it is hard not to hope that "Knives Out 2" clears this extremely low bar. Put it this way: it is hard to believe that the man who directed "Belfast," a mildly affecting glimpse into the director's childhood of growing up during The Troubles in Ireland, directed "Death on the Nile." But it is very easy to believe that the man who directed "Artemis Fowl" directed this absolute misfire.

/Film Rating: 2 out of 10