Death on the Nile: Harmlessly enjoyable entertainment

Kenneth Branagh’s long-delayed whodunnit overcomes most of its problems

Death on the Nile
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Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cert: 12A
Genre: Mystery
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Ali Fazal, Russell Brand, Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright, Dawn French
Running Time: 2 hrs 7 mins

Agatha Christie enthusiasts collectively rattled their saucers at the puzzling close to Kenneth Branagh's fitful disinterment of Murder on the Orient Express. As Hercule Poirot is brushing himself down, an officer runs up and announces there has been "a death on the Nile". Of course there has. Sydney Lumet's classic 1974 Orient Express was followed up in 1978 – albeit with a different lead – by an adaptation of Death on the Nile. Take the grey cells southwards, M Poirot.

Unfortunately, the narrative bridge makes no sense. It is, surely, giving nothing away to say that the eponymous death happens fully a third of the way into the story. Poirot is among many colourful characters steaming down the Nile when one of their number is murdered in their bed. Everyone has a motive. Almost everyone had opportunity. Has Poirot nipped out to solve the Orient Express murder halfway through his voyage?

Branagh encountered greater difficulties on the trip from snowy Europe to baking Egypt. The Covid convulsions buffeted Death on the Nile about the release schedules for more than two years. (Belfast was barely a twinkle in Branagh's eye when the film was shot.) Then Gal Gadot, who plays Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle, an impossibly glamorous newly-wed, embarrassed herself with that Imagine video. Most seriously of all, accusations of sexual abuse were levelled at Armie Hammer, who appears as Simon, Linnet's loving husband.

The coda from Orient Express is dismissed with agreeable chutzpah. After a bizarre prologue, Branagh's Poirot, entering a nightclub in London, is congratulated on solving a different murder in Egypt. (It would have been cheekier still if Branagh had used this as the opener to an adaptation of, say, The ABC Murders, but we can't have everything.) At the club, Poirot meets some significant characters in the looming story. Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) introduces Simon, then her lover, to her wealthy friend Linnet. Some time later, we learn that Simon has swapped Jackie for the heiress. As he travels about Egypt, his former girlfriend stalks with apparent menace. Also present are a nightclub singer (Letitia Wright); a communist socialite (Jennifer Saunders) and her faithful nurse (Dawn French, obviously); a doctor with a lingering passion for Linnet (Russell Brand, who, thank God, barely speaks) and various other likely suspects and murderees.

It fast becomes clear that the Hammer dilemma is greater than one might have suspected and that nothing has been done in the editing suite to counter the problem. It may not have been feasible to digitally replace such an integral character – though Ridley Scott, who did just that to Kevin Spacey with All the Money in the World, is a producer – but they might have cut the line in which the sexually rapacious Simon is described as "an engorged stallion". Many of his early scenes are now too darn uncomfortable.

Yet, for all the problems here, Death on the Nile is more successful than Branagh’s earlier Poirot adventure. The action is livelier. The humour is sharper. The cast seem more energised.

The director has worked for Marvel and thus will be comfortable with a mad, over-serious origin story for the detective's moustache that takes us to the Western Front in the first World War. After that grim throat-clearing passes, we are flung into a busy, Dutch-angled, computer-generated kaleidoscope of old-fashioned, bank-holiday larks. Branagh was the best thing in Orient Express and – though a few major players let him down – strong, broad performances here from Saunders, French, Wright, Sophie Okonedo and Annette Bening keep things aloft throughout. It helps that the 1978 film cast less of a shadow than Lumet's Orient Express and that the solution remains one of Christie's most satisfactory knot-tying exercises.

Yes, too much weighty subtext is layered beneath the larks. Yes, those circling controversies can’t easily be dismissed. But Death on the Nile remains the sort of harmlessly enjoyable entertainment they used to make when … well, way back when they made this film.

Released on February 11th