By Logan Sowash, Film Yap
In 2017, Kenneth Branagh brought his take of the classic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to the big screen with Murder on the Orient Express. While it had a mixed reception on its release, there was enough promise from Orient Express that a sequel with a talented ensemble, a new location, and the return of Poirot wouldn’t be an impossible task. After a successful box office, the possibility became a reality. Little did anyone know that the sequel would end up going from nearly a three-year gap between films to a release with nearly half a decade between installments.
However, despite pandemic delays (and a cast with a few…controversial characters), Death on the Nile has finally been released to continue Branagh’s cinematic version of Agatha Christie’s iconic detective. Was it worth the wait?
After his case in Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile follows Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) as his Egyptian vacation takes a surprising turn when his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) invites him to join a honeymoon party taking place between the beautiful heiress Linnet (Gal Gadot) and her handsome husband Simon (Armie Hammer).
As the honeymoon moves towards a tour down the Nile, Linnet asks Poirot to keep an eye on her honeymoon party, especially an old, jealous friend (Emma Mackey) who is also the scorned ex-lover of her new husband. After a few days on the tour, a tragedy strikes on the honeymoon: a patron has been murdered.
With an all too familiar setup for Poirot, he sets out to discover the murderer that hides among the honeymoon party. With a new batch of suspects, will Poirot be able to find the perpetrator before the situation becomes even more dire?
Speaking of the suspects, Death on the Nile has a talented ensemble that feels like a suitable follow-up to the previous film’s star-studded cast. From the charismatic blues singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) to the outspoken Communist godmother Maria Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), the cast of possible suspects do a really good job of maximizing their screen time. While they feel a little less outlandish than the characters in Orient Express, they’re not any less engaging as the investigation intensifies.
The personal standouts in the ensemble for me were Okonedo’s Otterbourne, Emma Mackey’s Jacqueline de Bellefort, and Tom Bateman’s Bouc. While the ensemble tows the line between memorable and forgettable depending on each suspect, they overall do a good job at resonating emotionally as the film’s mystery deals with how love can enrich (and even destroy) a person.
Compared to the mystery intertwined with revenge and grief in Orient Express, Death on the Nile has a slightly more meditative narrative that spends the first half of the film building an intense love triangle as well as showing the love and loss that led to Poirot being such a keen, distant detective.
It’s certainly a slower approach pacing-wise compared to the previous film but it ultimately feels like a benefit to the mystery, especially when the climactic reveal is filled with potent emotions amplified by Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot.
While I think even the most casual fan of Agatha Christie could tell that Michael Green’s adapted screenplay takes liberties with the original novel, the changes made feel like a successful enough effort to mold Branagh’s Poirot into one that is honestly more engaging as a film protagonist than in the previous film.
In Death on the Nile, Poirot feels less like a detective that remains unfazed with every case and more like a person that is constantly questioning why he continues to put himself through cases he knows are more trouble than they’re worth. When it was all said and done, I couldn’t help but be more curious than ever to see where Branagh would go if given another go as Poirot.
While discussing Branagh, it’s hard not to bring up that the film feels like a better showcase of Branagh’s talents as Hercule Poirot. While his directing in Death on the Nile is on par with its predecessor, I couldn’t help but be shocked at Branagh giving a more subdued, emotional performance than in Murder on the Orient Express. One of the aspects that put me off from the first film was just how cartoony and outlandish Poirot felt, causing him to stick out nearly every time he showed up on-screen.
This time, however, there was a vulnerability given to Poirot that made his quirks feel less silly and more like a man who is afraid to show more than his detective skills. The film not only gives this version of Poirot a concrete backstory (which I’m fairly certain was never the case in the novels) but a chance to reflect on the man he’s become, evolving Branagh’s film portrayal into someone much more worthwhile than he was half a decade ago.
Overall, despite all of the outside factors that could practically lead someone to think this film is cursed, Death on the Nile is a sequel that shows Kenneth Branagh’s take on the Belgian detective is entertaining enough for not only a train ride but a trip down the Nile as well. While the film’s mystery can’t help but feel a tad predictable (especially when 2019’s Knives Out pretty much deconstructed many of the twist and turns of murder mysteries like this one), the attention to Poirot, the ensemble, and the emotions surrounding the growing mystery lead to an enjoyable time that’s not a bad watch in theaters.
It’s certainly better than any February release has any right to be. To me, this is a perfect matinee film that keeps the audience just hooked enough throughout its little over two-hour runtime.
In the end, if this film makes enough money and buzz for a possible third entry, I’m surprised to say that I’ll be a tad interested to see which part of the globe Branagh takes Poirot next.