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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot observes the Sphinx in Death on the Nile. Photo: 20th Century Studios

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Death on the Nile is a good old-fashioned mess of a movie

Love is a (class) battlefield

Every franchise has its iconography. Batman has those pointy ears on his cowl, the sleek car, the Bat-Signal. Jurassic Park has the mosquito in amber and the clever velociraptors. Hercule Poirot? He’s got a fancy mustache, one that has appeared in numerous films, television series, and stage plays. Agatha Christie’s beloved detective isn’t a synonym for mysteries and solving them in the same way Sherlock Holmes is, but his brand? It’s strong.

That brand was also on the brink of a comeback. Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 film Murder on the Orient Express, perhaps the best-known of Christie’s novels to feature the mustachioed detective, was a sleeper hit, with a $352 million box-office gross on a $55 million budget. Branagh himself stars as Poirot, and surrounds himself with a star-studded cast, including Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, and others — all packaged in a marketing campaign smothered in Imagine Dragons.

Like Batman Begins, Murder on the Orient Express ended with a sequel tease, in this case promising “a murder on the bloody nile,” signaling that Branagh would adapt Christie’s Death on the Nile next. Then COVID-19 threw that plan into chaos. Originally scheduled for release during the 2019 holiday season, but delayed extensively due to the pandemic, Death on the Nile has arrived two years later than planned, and it’s a stranger film for it. While the film sat complete and its studio hoped for a profitable wide release, its cast accrued a number of PR disasters ranging in severity, including Letitia Wright’s alleged anti-vax messaging, Gal Gadot’s controversial stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and most notably, troubling and bizarre allegations of abuse and sexual coercion levied against Armie Hammer, leading to his Hollywood exile.

Simon Doyle and Linette Ridgeway stroll through Egypt arm in arm in Death on the Nile. Photo: Rob Youngson/20th Century Studios

Unfortunately for Death on the Nile, Hammer’s role as the striver Simon Doyle, who marries above his station, is central to the plot, and speculation over the film’s pandemic release strategy soon gave way to speculation over its Armie Hammer strategy. Two years later, the studio answer to Hammer seems to be identical to many corporations’ response to the pandemic: Disney and 20th Century Studios are quietly forging ahead with the film, without acknowledging the problems.

Mostly, this makes Death on the Nile an awkward film, one that’s hard to parse in trailers that only show Hammer in passing, and one that arrives at an awkward time, as the ongoing pandemic curdles into a restless public uncertainty over how to behave in a new normal that lacks clarity. A sudden February release is the compromise made for a film that would normally arrive amid a holiday blitz, yet might succeed without one, if the competition is fallow enough. What a perfect environment for a film about the petite bourgeoisie, cozying up to wealth before they kill to take it.

Death on the Nile is a mystery centered around one of the most understandable provocations to murder: a wedding. (Don’t think so? Try planning one.) Simon Doyle, a man of few resources, has just married wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), a shocking development after Doyle’s previous whirlwind engagement to Linnet’s best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). To celebrate their nuptials, the newlyweds honeymoon with friends and family on the S.S. Karnak, a pleasure barge that will take them through eastern Africa for several days of indulgent partying and “enough champagne to fill the Nile.”

A honeymoon party gets underway in the Karnak’s ballroom in Death on the Nile. Photo: 20th Century Studios

While Poirot is vacationing in Egypt, his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, reprising his role from Murder on the Orient Express) invites him to join in on the festivities, which go sour when Linnet is found murdered. With a boat full of suspects and the confined space getting smaller all the time as the killer grows desperate, Poirot must find the culprit before they strike again — and like in every good mystery, just about everyone is acting suspicious and has a motive.

As Poirot, Branagh brings a more muted performance to the lead role this time around. He’s a detective who’s proud of his ability to solve crimes, yet still outraged by them. Branagh hints at a deep-set sorrow behind his enormous mustache. That baseline is appreciated in a cast full of uneven performances — their quality usually commensurate with how much time the film spends with a character. The exception is Hammer. Simon Doyle is a character who must convey charm and menace in equal measure, something Hammer has shown a knack for in films like Sorry to Bother You and Rebecca. But the film does not arrive in a vacuum — knowledge of the actor’s ongoing scandals make it hard to read any of his work generously. His presence almost feels like a spoiler.

Largely faithful to Christie’s novel, at least in the broad strokes, Branagh’s adaptation from a script by Michael Green makes several tweaks that bring it into continuity with the previous film (the original novels weren’t in sequence) and underline the book’s class consciousness. In this version, for example, Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) is a blues singer instead of a romance novelist, and her niece/manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright) is in love with Bouc — a relationship Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Benning) is suspicious of, due to the wealth Bouc stands to inherit — and while Euphemia is too well-mannered to say it out loud, because of Rosalie’s race.

Hercule Poirot points a gun in Death on the Nile Photo: 20th Century Studios

While the film is slow-moving and at times turgid, its take on love as class warfare gives it a compelling mean streak that’s fun to think about, even when it doesn’t unfold onscreen in the most compelling manner. Beautifully presented and lavishly designed, Branagh’s vision is hamstrung by a large cast that leaves too many characters underdeveloped, and a slow pace that may make viewers feel like they’re trapped on the Karnak with said cast, not in a good way.

Yet there is some allure to Death on the Nile’s old-fashioned appeal, with its wide shots, its warm hues, and its utter confidence that its mystery is enough to keep the audience interested. It’s flashy because the characters are: This is a story about extraordinarily wealthy Europeans frolicking on the Nile while locals carry their bags and serve them lobster, where a marriage and a signature can take one man from relative obscurity to the upper echelons of society. It is the perfect place to follow Hercule Poirot.

Agatha Christie’s characterization of Poirot consistently depicts him as abhorring mess, to the point that he prizes symmetry to an obsessive degree. In Branagh’s hands, this is largely played for comedy; in one scene, he cannot begin to eat dessert until all his pastries are perfectly arranged on a plate. But there’s also tragedy here, a sadness to this man who solves crimes and seeks symmetry among the members of high society. Unfortunately for Hercule Poirot, there is no symmetry to be found there. As Linnet says before her death, nobody is your friend when you have money — and it’s no coincidence that after her death, everyone around her is a suspect.

Death on the Nile is now playing in theaters.

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