Famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot investigates a series of murders on a luxurious river trip.
Kenneth Branagh’s latest stab at the Agatha Christie classics is as much about the wounds and scars of the living as about the dead (though there are plenty of bodies too). And despite — because of? — its focus on a boat full of suspects who all have reason to loathe their murdered hostess, it’s also about what we might do for love.
While the film luxuriates in its 1930s glamour — bias-cut evening dresses, perfectly tailored suits, an immaculate white river boat with crisply immaculate white-uniformed crew — it starts in an altogether different way. In fact the black and white prologue was so unexpected I wondered if Disney+ had added the wrong film to their platform. Beginning during World War 1, it’s a sort of moustache origins story, though it’s really about the masking of pain.
Stuck in the trenches of Belgium with an order given from above that is so foolhardy it threatens to kill their whole company, Poirot comes up with an expertly-reasoned alternative that mostly works, though it leaves him injured and hospitalised. His girlfriend Katherine is unfazed by his facial injury, merely suggesting he grows a moustache to cover the scar. And so his twirly facial hair is born.
It’s not the only battle scar the war inflicts on him. By 1937, when the body-heavy trip of the title takes place, Katherine is long gone (we find out why during the film), and Poirot is a man living without love, encased in a self-built shell as he walks among lovers both young and beautiful and old and craggy like himself.
He’s there having grafted himself on to a glamorous wedding party, celebrating the nuptials of the wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and her penniless husband Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). The couple’s happiness is overshadowed by the frequent reappearance of Jackie de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), the woman who introduced them when Simon was her own fiancé. After an argument with Simon on board the boat one night, Jackie shoots him in the leg before being led away distraught and then sedated; the next morning Linnet is found dead in bed with a bullet in her temple.
Like Murder On The Orient Express a crowd of suspects is stuck in a luxurious, moving prison where no one is safe from Poirot or each other. Even the innocent have secrets they wish to keep hidden, and they’re sitting ducks as more murders take place.
This is a gorgeous movie, stuffed with beautiful and/or rich people in expensive outfits awaiting their “interviews” with the great detective. It’s tremendous fun — and brutally funny in a way, that everyone on the boat there to celebrate Linnet’s marriage also has reason to greatly dislike her. (To be fair some of the best weddings are like that.)
There are changes from the book (which means a more diverse cast) but the classic Christie tropes remain. The exposition of who everyone is, Poirot’s interviews where he explains to each guest why they are a suspect, and the unmasking denouement offer up the kind of familiarity one can luxuriate in, akin to a good port and Stilton at Christmas. And despite the languorousness of the trip, this is not a slow film. Though we’re half way through before Linnet is bumped off it never feels dragged out; that first hour is a joy, and she’s one of the least interesting characters anyway.
The downside of an ensemble like Death On The Nile is that it’s so stuffed with “names” some characters spend most of the time in the background, particularly Rose Leslie as Linnet’s maid Louise Bourget, and Russell Brand as mooning ex-boyfriend Dr Windlesham.
It also seems as if every star got to put their hand in a velvet bag and pull out a piece of paper with the accent they’d have to do written on it. At one point British national treasure Jennifer Saunders, as the wealthy American Marie Van Schuyler, is engaged in conversation with American national treasure Annette Bening’s wealthy English character Euphemia Bouc. Rose Leslie plays French, Sophie Okonedo and Letitia Wright are American aunt and niece. And of course Branagh himself is Poirot; I’m embarrassed to say I have no idea if his Belgian accent is first class, merely acceptable or simply dreadful. (Sorry Belgians, when it comes to accents I fear you may be the Canadians of Europe.)
I cannot actually remember Gadot’s accent in this, as she’s forgettable apart from her beauty. Her dance with Simon when they first meet looks ridiculous rather than sultry. Still, her performance is in some ways perfect, as Linnet is a foil for her guests’ actions and feelings rather than a fleshed-out woman in her own right.
In another swap Armie Hammer, born into money and confidence in real life, is convincing as the social climbing Simon, marrying into wealth and hence never really fitting in. Hammer is a rich man playing a poor man learning to play a rich man, but is he also Armie Hammer playing Simon MacCorkindale playing Simon Doyle? With famous films based on books it’s easy for the “new” actor to end up playing the “old” actor playing the novel’s character.
Poirot is the anchored centre. Even in the unimpressive Murder on The Orient Express, his first outing as Poirot, Branagh managed to make him his own without losing his essence. Here he is still finicky, though now the focus is on the tragedies that made him.
The others are satellites around him as he discovers hidden love, longing and loathing among the guests, who despite their money or success have often been battered by the mores of the day: racism, classism, and homophobia.
While Death On The Nile lends itself to beauty, luxury and glamour — with a decent budget how could that aspect of the movie go wrong? — Branagh doesn’t take the lazy route and leave it at that. Besides the startling black and white opening scenes, he makes other, smaller design choices that work well. There are frequent shots looking into the brightly-lit boat through endless pains of glass, our view sparkling but slightly distorted. And as the bodies mount up, the same four silent women crew members, dressed in white shorts and long socks, act as pallbearers moving the dead around the boat; the mute servant class clearing up the messes of the elite. It’s a sign that this story is rather a first world problem, while also being as old as the hills.
Death On The Nile is available on Disney+
Want to know more? Read my article on the ending, plus why everyone is a suspect.
Watch the trailer now: