For all of the massive budgets and unrelenting marketing via social media of current event movies, most of them still feel small. It’s not a surprise then that they lend themselves quite well to being watched on a TV screen. Kenneth Branagh’s latest film Death on the Nile, by contrast, is a BIG movie. It’s the kind of movie that fancies itself an epic like those of John Huston, William Wyler, and David Lean.
This is a movie that indulges in its own luxury and scope, for good and bad. Death on the Nile features stunning, painterly shots of the Nile riverbanks and exquisite sweeps of old dance clubs and luxurious boats that recall Branagh’s penchant for putting on a show as he did in his various Shakespeare adaptations and even his more recent franchise fair like his live-action adaptation of Cinderella (2014). One only wishes they were part of a better overall movie.
Too Long a Setup
It takes Death on the Nile about an hour to actually get the mystery going. Branagh indulges in the flair of extended dance sequences inside of a club, verbose dialogue that drones on and on, and even a backstory for Poirot to explain why he has a mustache. In the era where ambiguity is a sin and every choice is a psychological play, I guess Branagh felt it appropriate to let us know that Poirot got his face partly blown off in a WWI raid and his wife suggested he cover it with facial hair. The scene in the hospital bed where they talk about this is a weird mix of theatrical tragedy and latent humor that certainly doesn’t work at the moment and is ultimately given a schmaltzy payoff that in my mind, felt anti-climactic.
Branagh’s Eyes and Whiskers Carry the Show
Branagh and his Poirot try to carry the movie off of the auteur’s pure joy at being able to put on a French accent and waltz around with a big mustache. While I can’t comment on whether the French accent is authentic enough, I can say that Branagh revels in flaunting it (and even a little actual French) signaling that even after all these years, the man simply finds a happy place in theatrics. Sophie Okonedo’s Salome Otterbourne who brings a suspicious and biting attitude that plays perfectly alongside Poirot’s sheepish charm is the other major highlight. They have only a few scenes together but those are the ones that really sing in a movie that dozes in and out of interest often. So much of the film, by nature of the story’s construction, is stuck with the characters that one is left pining for more shots of the outside of the boat than the inside of it.
DP Haris Zambarloukos and editor Úna Ní Donghaíle work together in a much more controlled and fluid manner that isn’t bogged down with slow-motion melodramatics the way their work in Belfast (2021) was. The photography of Egypts riverbanks is stunning and acts as a jolt of electricity every time the movie’s monotonous pendulum makes the eyelids get heavy. As the movie winds down it also thankfully pick up speed. It takes a while to get there though.
It might be strange to suggest that Death on the Nile values the setup and characters a little too much, but so much of this film’s flaws stem from the fact that Branagh’s main casting choices – Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Tom Bateman, Letitia Wright – are simply bad in this. There is such a wide gap between them and Branagh himself in the energy level, line delivery, and general immersive qualities. The more interesting castings – Annette Benning, Ali Faizal, and Russell Brand – are not given much to do and go through the motions.
Death on the Nile is certainly the better of the two Branagh films that have come out recently, but it relies too heavily on its director/actor being enamored with his own material. As much as Branagh tries he can’t steer this ship, botched with holes, to safety quickly enough.
Death on the Nile was released in theaters in the U.S. on February 11, 2022.
Did you see Death on the Nile? What were your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!
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