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REVIEW – “Death on the Nile”: Stagnant Murder Mystery Slinks down a Lazy River

When a murder mystery can only go so far as to wander its way thru a motive and its motivator without an aspect of surprise, the evidence is pure that we may have a slight turkey on our hands. Please don’t get me wrong, Death on the Nile is a fine enough piece of homemade suspense pie with director/star Kenneth Branagh once more dipping his toes into the thematic ocean of Agatha Christie’s bibliography. But at the same time, it cannot successfully challenge the mind as well as it sways the heart with its tawdry strings of suspense. Much as I enjoyed it, and considering its lengthy delays in release, the guesswork was less than adequate.

And let that not be any sort of slight on Branagh’s portrayal of the cleverly mindful Hercule Poirot. Reprising a character he’d previously embodied without hesitation in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. His expertise and mental acuity were nothing short of heroic as he delved into a murder case where everyone had a role to play, no matter what level. Fast forward three years, he’s solved a couple more cases since then, and he’s looking to steer clear of scrapes. But upon settling down for holiday in Cairo, trouble seems to find him.

Not that that phases a steadfast Branagh in full player-coach mode, moving a half step ahead of the menagerie awaiting him by way of old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). It’s a wedding party right off the banks of the Nile, headlined by eloping socialites Simon (Armie Hammer) and Linnet (Gal Gadot). The pair had met in Poirot’s presence weeks prior, but heeded not much mind beyond the likelihood their meeting may have been for more than mere romance. And that suspicion only further weighs down his judgment while the group at large enjoys a lazy riverboat ride, while batting off the near-psychotic advances of Simon’s jealous ex (Emma Mackey).

From there, a murder takes place; like before, no one is exempt from the investigation, even when the evidence appears too obvious. I couldn’t say for sure if that’s a mistake on scribe Michael Green’s behalf, or if Christie herself made it appear too easy to figure out the clues. Or if maybe the ensemble cast put too much on the table too early. All friends to the bride, but not even close to extended family Among them, morally oblivious doctor Windlesham (Russell Brand), jazz singer Salome (Sophie Okenedo) and her niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright), godmother Marie (Jennifer Saunders) and companion Bowers (Dawn French), Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), and legal counsel Andrew (Ali Fazal). Their very presence gave off more of a rip-off Knives Out vibe versus an authentic novel adaptation, trading posh for an uncomfortable rich person exuberance. That’s as much as a distraction to both the plot and Poirot’s judgment of character, as Hammer’s personal controversies were a near-direct deterrent to the film’s long delayed release. Covid certainly had a role to play in this post-merger project to stay on the shelf longer than necessary, but other factors did not help.

Any sort of extraneous deviation compounds upon itself. And both Branagh and Green are unable to recognize that, while questing for a story both deeper and darker than their predecessor. In front of the camera, Branagh effortlessly embraces the grittier side of Poirot, showing his younger self while captaining the Belgian army in the early days of WW1. An adventure that forced him to grow that famed mustache, and led to meeting his eventual wife. It was enough of a treat to lean a bit harder on that “moral compass” trope, only skated on in fleeting glimpses during Express. Even still, it was a pointless challenge to marry that with a quickly unraveling mystery. How ironic that Green now has two films he had scribed to involve both riverboats, and a declining level of focus to further illustrate Branagh’s lack of directorial grip. Even after the now Oscar-nominated Belfast, we’re reminded too well how not every director can maintain a spotless filmography.

Same goes for both Hammer and Gadot, triumphantly hammy in their performances. The typically crass and oblique Brand appears shockingly subdued and calm when not provoked by accusations. Mackey’s seething jealousy provides fair counterpoint to Hammer’s sense of disdain. And of course, French and Saunders are full-on besties as they’ve ever been throughout their careers. Wright and Okenedo’s characters I could’ve lived without, knowing just how skint their contributions were to this otherwise diverse ensemble. Often to the point where I was being pulled out of the film for something altogether different within the same universe. I’m sure it was a plenty complex web Christie had forged on the page, but Branagh really should’ve looked for ways to reel it in, better organize the clues, and shave 15 minutes off an already bloated two hours and change. Any feel for the story is effectively dead in the water, while Branagh’s friends, composer Patrick Doyle, DP Haris Zambarloukos, and production designer Jim Clay work overtime to shape the look and sound, almost balancing out those insufficiencies.

But it is all too little too late in Branagh’s often skilled mitts, the damage already having come in at the coat check. I found much to enjoy with Death on the Nile, still delivering the same tawdry suspense and suspicion as its prior counterpart. Where it unsuccessfully mills about on keeping the audience on their toes, that’s where the ride lost direction, running out of power before it became remotely interesting again. Embracing its painfully hit and miss attitude, I’m sure fans of the last film will welcome this next effort for a Sunday teatime matinee, complete with its quirks. I may not be so easily convinced to revisit Christie’s charming realm so immediately. Not until after I’ve actually read the book, at least. (C; 3/5 Horns Up!)

Death on the Nile opens in theaters February 11; rated PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, and sexual material; 127 minutes.