Director – Kenneth Branagh – 2020 – UK – Cert. 12a – 127m
Detective Hercule Poirot must investigate a rising body count on a wedding party Nile cruise – out in cinemas on Friday, February 11th
Attending a gig by blues musician Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) where her niece and savvy business manager Rosalie Otterbourne (Laetitia Wright) is also in attendance, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) runs into Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) who are passionately in love with each other and engage in some extremely suggestive dancing. She encourages her friend Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) to take the floor with Simon, whereupon they too engage in some extremely suggestive dancing.
Holidaying in Egypt, Poiret runs into old acquaintance Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his overbearing mother Euphemia (Annette Bening). Cut to a lavish hotel where Simon and Linnet announce to a party of attendant friends that they are to be married. Simon appears to have done very well for himself: he lacks money or prospects while Linnet is a fabulously rich heiress. The understandably alienated Jacqueline, however, keeps following them around on their travels. The couple asks Poirot if he could do something about this. He refuses on the grounds that no crime has been committed, but nevertheless speaks with Jacqueline and politely asks her to back off.
To avoid Jacqueline, the couple book their friends onto the luxury liner Karnac for a Nile Cruise. When the trip pauses to visit historic temple ruins at Abu Simbel, the couple are nearly killed in flagrante by a large fragment of falling masonry. Jacqueline joins the passengers, the boat continues on its journey and there is a murder. Then another. As the body count starts to mount, time is running out for Poirot to deduce the murderer.
Cue lots of discussions about motive – Linnet has stated that she has a reason to distrust every single one of her friends. Alibis abound. And therein lies the problem with this film. It’s based on a popular bestseller with a ready audience for which it wants desperately to find a way of making the story cinematic.
In certain of its assets, it succeeds. It starts off well with a black and white WW1 episode explaining both Poirot’s trademark moustache and the loss of the love of his life. It moves on to a London music venue to showcase a performer based on legendary black blues musician Sister Rosetta Tharp (Salome Otterbourne is a romance novelist in the book) and, throws in some risqué dancing, lavish hotels, a luxury paddle steamer and lots of local Egyptian colour. There’s a brief CGI snake to make you jump and an equally short shot of a crocodile catching and eating some unsuspecting prey on the Nile bank to give the impression of murderous evil once the cruise is underway.
Alas, it’s one of those films where an all-star cast proves something of a hit and miss affair. The two leading ladies Gadot and Mackey are suitably glamorous and passionate, Bening delivers and enjoyable turn as a loopy mother and force to be reckoned with while Okonedo makes a great blues musician. Wright and Ali Fazal (arguably the strongest male performance here) impress as a business manager and a crooked lawyer respectively. Male leads Armie Hammer and Tom Bateman feel decidedly limp, though.
After the risqué dancing at the start, the narrative delivers with some (extremely mild) sex scenes later on in an attempt to both be extremely racy and to keep the sex toned down so as not to offend anyone. Not a good mix.
A bigger problem, though, is that toward the end, the film sinks into lengthy and wordy explanation as to motive, alibis, clues and the identity of the killer. No doubt this works well on the printed page, or in theatre where an actor telling a verbal story can captivate an audience. This isn’t impossible on the big screen, but it’s a hard thing to pull off effectively as the medium lends itself much more readily to narrative conveyed in images and / or sounds than to actors relating narrative by talking. Show, don’t tell, as the old saying goes. It’s the reason Hitchcock made suspense thrillers (when’s he going to do it?) not whodunits.
And in a tale where racy sex is the raison d’être of the piece, the sexless (aside from the opening episode) detective Poirot feels redundant. The jump from the two couples dancing at the London gig while he arranges small puddings on his table to his sitting in a chair looking at the pyramids says it all. By the final reel, when he trots out his lengthy whodunit explanation, you’ve long since lost interest.
How strange that Branagh can churn out a dissatisfying blockbuster like this cheek by jowl with his genuinely compelling Belfast (2021), also currently in cinemas.
Death On The Nile is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, February 11th.