‘Death on the Nile’ treads water

“Death on the Nile” (2022) – The Nile.  It’s the second-largest river in the world, trailing only The Amazon by 200 miles.  The Nile begins at Lake Victoria (located in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya), runs north, and then spills into the Mediterranean Sea.  The said waterway runs 4,130 miles, and to splash around some perspective, that’s as long as a drive from Seattle, Wash. to Miami, Fla. and then a plane ride to Jamaica. 

Grab your passport.

Yes, this natural water wonder stretches longer than Marvin Gaye’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” rendition at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.  (Yes, look it up on YouTube.)

Well, after catching director Kenneth Branagh’s “Death on the Nile”, it would be a stretch to call this movie a joy to watch.  Unfortunately, this film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel is a semi-lifeless exhibition.  Naturally, this whodunit leans into some twists and turns, but the performances and the picture’s overall tones feel straight, monotone, and (figuratively) scripted.

The script calls for murder on the gorgeous luxury liner, the Karnak, as it treks down The Nile.  However, with little or no emotional investment with the characters – which is surprising, considering the ensemble includes Annette Bening, Gal Gadot, Letitia Wright, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, and an almost unrecognizable Russell Brand – this critic didn’t care if the ship sunk or not.  Sorry, that’s a bit harsh. Mind you, I didn’t actually wish for the boat to descend below the surface.

Simon (Armie Hammer) and Linnet (Gal Gadot)

However, if the boat happens to sink, let’s hope that Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) safely finds his way to a sandy river bank.  Sure, the “captain” should go down with the ship, but not the seminal Belgian detective.  Many folks enjoy a good mystery, so maybe Branagh should shoot for “Evil Under the Sun” in 2024?

Despite this lackluster effort, I’ll bite for a future Christie interpretation.

Well, in the present-day, or rather 1937, Jacqueline (Mackey) and Simon (Hammer) are engaged and aren’t mysterious about showing their affection.  The lovebirds dance in a spacious ballroom and attempt their best “Dirty Dancing” routine that might be best defined as rhythmic canoodling. 

Unquestionably, this pair’s collective love language is physical touch. 

Now, Simon – although dashingly handsome – is unemployed and without many practical skills, so Jacqueline asks her wealthy friend, Linnet Ridgeway (Gadot), to find her said fiancé a job.  Ms. Ridgeway agrees, hires Simon for work….and then for love.  Well, they fall in love, become engaged, get married, and have their honeymoon on an exotic boat trip down the Nile.

Wow!

Jacqueline just assumed that Linnet and Simon would spend late nights pouring over sales numbers, not glasses of wine and then tripping the light fantastic on the dance floor and in the bedroom. 

Well, Jacqueline wants Linnet dead, and when Hercule steps on the Karnak, he discovers that nearly the entire cast of eccentric characters aren’t particularly fond of her either. 

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh)

Whether it’s resentment of her affluence or romance scorned, Linnet – even though she’s quite pleasant – grates on the sightseers, like suffering through a week-long get together with Nancy Grace, while the TV host spews cases of whooping cough and Tourette’s.

Curses.  A ship full of suspects might jump at the chance to throw Linnet overboard.

After a plodding hour of uneventful introductions, murder strikes.  Then, during the second half of the 127-minute runtime, Poirot uses his wits, smarts, brains, and sixth sense of sniffing out clues to find the killer, hopefully. 

A couple of problems arise.  First, as slow as the first hour seems, the second half speeds through the secondary events after the initial homicide and our detective’s review of the facts. 

With most great murder mysteries, the sleuth analyzes details and pours over second, third, fourth, and fifth visitations and recollections – from multiple perspectives – of the treacherous events.  These moments are celebrated crime-solving treasures of the genre.  Here, the film doesn’t revel in that curious churn enough, and instead, the pacing of the second hour feels like Poirot is scribing X’s on a checklist. 

Linnet (Gadot) and Jacqueline (Emma Mackey)

Second, the film has near-zero whimsy or charm.  An aura of checked formality and subdued tones bathed in shrewd decorum permeates the entire vessel.  Look, murder is a serious business, but solving a slaying should be an engaging exercise with the audience.  The on-screen personalities should drive vivacity that tugs against the whodunit’s tension.

Perhaps, “Knives Out” (2019) spoiled this moviegoer, as the crafty, nuanced, and flat-out fun film turned the genre on its head.  During that film’s Sept. 2019 TIFF premiere, writer/director Rian Johnson told me that he enjoyed Agatha Christie movies.

He added, “I’ve always loved whodunits, and I’ve always tried to think of what I would do for (one).”

“Death on the Nile” was a feature film in 1978 with Peter Ustinov admirably playing Poirot.  Director John Guillermin filmed his movie on location in Egypt, and the actors climb on pyramids and ride horses in the desert. The on-screen events feel so authentic, you’d almost swear that you (from the comfort of your living room) are catching a sunburn and also a few grains of sand in your mouth, not unlike watching Indiana Jones whip around the Middle East in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). 

In this 2022 version, most of the filming – with the actors – apparently occurred at Longcross Studios in Surrey, England, while a secondary crew shot along the Nile for panoramas, according to James Medd’s Feb. 8, 2022 CNTraveler.com article. Granted, the visuals look lush and wondrous, but also manufactured at times.  The 2022 Nile doesn’t feel sun-drenched and dusty.  Instead, it looks polished and manicured. 

Perhaps, this industrial atmosphere seeped into the performances.  Although the 2022 cast is talented and prominent, this movie doesn’t have as many heavy hitters as 1978’s flick: Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, David Niven, Jack Warren, Mia Farrow, and Bette Davis.  Yes, THAT Bette Davis.  Also, Ustinov’s Poirot sashays – with the ease of a Sunday stroll on the beach – through a devastating and delicious array of conclusions that allow the audience to soak up every clue and inference as we all say, “Aha,” along with our hero.  It’s not an accident that the 1978 movie runs for 140 minutes.    

Well, it’s lovely to attempt any translation of Christie’s work to film.  Cheers to Branagh.  Then again, the most fascinating portion of this “Death on the Nile” is Hercule’s partial backstory in 1914.  Perhaps Branagh should set his next Poirot adventure just after WWI.  We’ll work with de-aging CGI, call in Rian Johnson as a consultant, and film on location for the entire shoot. 

Let’s work that deal!  

For now, this “Death on the Nile” is just treading water. 

⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Michael Green, based on Agatha Christie’s novel

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Letitia Wright, Russell Brand, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo

Runtime: 127 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Image credits: 20th Century Studios

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