Kenneth Branagh's Death on the Nile: Destination Weddings Can Be Murder

a man with a mustache on the stairs
Kenneth Branagh as POIROT in DEATH ON THE NILE

Kenneth Branagh goes back for a second round of locked room mysteries in his latest film adaptation of Death on the Nile, number 15 of the Hercule Poirot mysteries by Agatha Christie. Even though his adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express received only fair acclaim, Branagh decided that he wasn't quite ready to let the dream of an Agatha Christie multiverse die. Luckily the second film manages to outshine Orient Express in most ways. Whether it's successful enough to guarantee viewers want or need to see more Poirot in the near future remains to be seen.

When we last laid eyes on Poirot, he solved the murder of American businessman, Edward Ratchett. That film ended with Poirot getting a note from British Army asking him to investigate "a murder on the Nile." Branagh banks on viewers forgetting this sloppy setup by forgetting Poirot ever received such summons as this sequel begins. Instead, Poirot receives an invitation by association to a wedding booze cruise. Poirot runs into his dear friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) (returning from Orient Express), vacationing with his mother Euphemia (Annette Bening) in Egypt. The pair plan to join up for the wedding celebration of Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), newlyweds who have invited all of their dearest friends to bask in their happiness for a destination wedding. The shindig transfers from land to river to avoid the unwelcome presence of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), who has been stalking the couple ever since Simon dumped her for her former friend, Linnet. The guests converge on the S.S. Karnak, a luxury steamer with all the champagne and shuffleboard desired. But it's not long before the merriment turns to menacing and the promised murder ensues. It's up to Poirot to solve the case.

Two women and a man in formalwear at a party
[L-R] Gal Gadot as LINNET, Emma Mackey as JACQUELINE, Armie Hammer as SIMON in DEATH ON THE NILE
Of course, no locked room mystery can succeed without an impressive ensemble cast of suspects. Attending the nuptials and becoming a suspect by proximity are Bouc and Euphemia (why these two are invited is unclear); Linnet's lady in waiting, Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie); doctor and former beau to Linnet, Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand); a lawyer and cousin to Linnet, Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal); socialite and godmother to Linnet, Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders); nurse and companion to Van Schuyler, Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French); jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo), who has been hired to entertain the guests; and Salome's niece and business manager, Rosalie Otterbourne (Letitia Wright). Let's get this out of the way – Branagh reimagines much in this adaptation, switching up character names and occupations for the sake of casting choices.

Branagh choosing to cast Salome Otterbourne as a jazz singer, instead of a novelist doesn't harm the story much. The bigger issue that might enrage fans of the franchise is the unapologetic way he grants Poirot a tragic romantic backstory for elusive reasons. Similar to Sherlock, Christie imagined Poirot as an asexual character that has only one love interest that never pans out. So Branagh's addition of a former flame muddies the waters of his character lore. Viewers who lack this knowledge (and those who really wanted a mustache origin story) perhaps won't be bothered. Still these alterations smudge the cool factor of Poirot. There's something to be said about the archetype of the socially awkward and emotionally distant detective, and Poirot's invented emotional baggage makes him susceptible to human error. The greatest detective in the world can't afford that. In short, I don't like Branagh as Poirot and that factor impacts my ability to enjoy these films greatly. Although, to be fair, every time I see Branagh I can't help but remember he starred himself in a four-hour unedited version of Hamlet. The man thinks too highly of himself. 

Two black women and a man stand on a boat
[L-R] Ali Fazal as ANDREW, Letitia Wright as ROSALIE, Sophie Okonedo as SALOME in DEATH ON THE NILE
Let's move on from the cast. The strength of any period locked mystery rests on the production design and the extent to which the evidence confounds viewers and keeps them guessing as to the guilty party until the very last moment. Production design mostly holds up. This is a gorgeous film with good looking actors, glamorous costumes, and breathtaking scenery. But looking back at Orient Express, the overall design had more old fashioned charm in the steam locomotive set pieces. Historical accuracy is not the strong point of the Egyptian locale in Death on the Nile. And though most of the costumes get this viewer's seal of approval, a red coat which becomes a piece of evidence looks as if it could be purchased at an Old Navy near you. For better enjoyment, gloss over these details in favor of glitter and glamor.

The second most important factor to evaluate is how well the mystery keeps the audience guessing and allows the leading detective to solve the case in a satisfying way. In this area, Death on the Nile succeeds and surpasses the first film. Each character has motives – some clearer than others – so when Poirot announces he has put it all together, I anticipated having all revealed. Branagh connects the dots in a way the audience can follow, and those dots defy expectation.

Attend Death on the Nile for an appetizer while waiting for Knives Out 2 or for a historical mystery set Between the Wars. The Branagh Poirot mysteries don't earn the title of excellent, but for an early year movie theater date night, you could do worse.

Final score: 3 out of 5