The Hercule Poirot cinematic universe marches on! Everyone’s favorite(?) mustachioed man of mystery has found himself in yet another closed location amidst yet another colorful group of characters, a few of whom are sure to be dead within the next few hours. Interrogations will be made, fingers will be pointed, and secrets will be revealed. Everyone is a suspect! They certainly all have a motive, but they all seem to have an alibi as well, see? You know how it goes. No one could figure out whodunit except of course for Hercule Poirot, the world’s greatest detective. Its a title he wears proudly and states often, his ego matched only by his ability to intuit the work of criminals through the tiniest clues. Also he’s quite particular about the number of fine desserts he eats when taking in a show (must be an even number), and he’s very exacting about his mustache.
It’s no Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight mustache, but it’s pretty big and notably ornate. One would think that Mr. Poirot is just a strange dude, being a world class celebrity detective and all, but actually, he wears the mustache for a reason, a reason we learn in the opening moments of Death on the Nile.
Entirely in black and white, the opening sequence features a young Hercule Poirot at war. The de-aging of Branagh is remarkably clean, and the sequence itself is gorgeous. Using his wits, Poirot saves his squadron from running into certain death. This heroic act comes at great personal cost to young Poirot, who it is now evident will be the focal point of the film from a character standpoint rather than just plot. It’s a smart move because Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot is easily the most interesting and fun part of the film. He finds notes of humor in Poirot’s particular ways, and is also able to regularly imbue the demons of the detective’s past into his correspondence with the other characters.
The closed location in which everyone is a suspect is a large riverboat chartered by a pair of newlyweds for their honeymoon. Their coupling has left in its wake a scorned ex-lover, and Poirot has been asked along to keep a watchful eye for any potential tomfoolery. Soon after the boat departs someone turns up dead, and as established by a first act filled with connective exposition, everyone is a suspect!
The suspect list is a mix of notable Hollywood names, character actors, and recent headline…darlings? Some are good, some not so much, and none able to capture the majesty of the cast of Knives Out, who have left discerning audiences pretty spoiled about this sort of thing. A standout is Sophie Okonedo as Salome Otterbourne, the soulful, tough as nails musician who also doubles as a potential romantic interest for our hero. A guarded sizzle forms between them that is charming as all hell and bodes well for the continued characterization of Hercule Poirot over multiple movies (which is undoubtedly the goal here). Within a cast of people going as large (and as arch) as can be, Okonedo works within this heightened style to deliver something less fleeting than the rest of the cast. Ali Fazal is another standout, as is Russell Brand, who was admittedly unrecognizable to me until about halfway through the movie.
It’s our heavy hitters who fall behind. Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer are pretty as heck, but neither really makes much of an impression within a roster of hungry actors. They are often playing across from Emma Mackey, who perhaps works the material best of anyone in the cast, and they feel oddly outclassed. Rose Leslie is underused, but appreciated, and Annette Bening, while also underused, seems most to be auditioning for a future Knives Out sequel.
I have not read it, but I would imagine that Death on the Nile, the 18th Poirot novel, was selected for adaptation on account of the development of Hercule Poirot presumably contained within. It makes sense to do so this early in the film franchise so that the series at large doesn’t fall into formula. Again, I don’t have the information to speak to Christie’s reliance on formula, but as I understand it, Poirot is a Jack Reacher type, meaning that he often finds himself in the most insane circumstances and it’s best not to ask questions. With that comes formula, but that never stopped a franchise in the past.
If the problematic members of this cast aren’t enough to sink the series financially, it is feasible to expect a few more shiny adaptations of Poirot mysteries which provide ample opportunity for diverse and interesting casts to have some fun. I would hope, however, that they step up the direction in such a way that whole thing doesn’t feel so phony. This is a film filled with gorgeous locations, all made up of ones and zeros on some hard drive somewhere. Taken as a screenshot, the images look sharp, but in motion, and when inhabited with flesh and blood performers, they look like the tallest pile of dogshit imaginable. One fully CG image of Egyptian architecture appears to have been used twice: once as an establishing shot, and then again as an action shot (a few actors were placed in front of the shot via a green box somewhere). The previous film had the same problem, and it’s a hard one to forgive. Yes, I know that the film was likely shot in quarantine, and yes, I know that it’s more expensive to actually go to these landmarks, but YOU HAVE THE MONEY. Spend it.
If you’re going to make a movie that prides itself on delivering beautiful vistas and then you don’t actually shoot at these locations, what’s the fucking point? Take the trip, or perhaps you can give this budget to a production that doesn’t phone it in.
And that’s the rub here: When Death on the Nile is good, it’s fantastic. When it’s bad, it feels like a monumental waste of time.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green, Agatha Christie
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Russell Brand, Annette Bening, Tom Bateman
Rated PG-13, 127 long ass minutes