Wallace Hartley was one of eight violinists aboard the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage. He led his octet through a series of dulcet songs to their deaths, as they tried to calm, entertain, and — most importantly — distract the passengers from the sheer chaos going on around them. In some ways, it worked.
No matter how sweet or fun the song was, whether or not it was able to transport the passengers away just for a second, no tune was sweet enough to change their fate, or to stop the ship from sinking. Death on the Nile was much the same.
When the thriller started in black and white, I was starting to wonder if I accidentally walked into Belfast — Branagh’s other, arguably more promising drama movie that was released within weeks of this one. But unfortunately not. Instead, we were taken through a flashback sequence of Poirot’s time as a World War I soldier where we see his incredible intellect in action once again: although typically, for the purposes of character development, he is unable to save his captain.
The barracks and trenches scenes are well made, with a clever use of sound (or lack of it) to build tension in certain scenes, but they were still a little bit… generic? The main purpose of this opening is to tell a superhero origin story of sorts: specifically, the origin of Poirot’s iconic moustache. Supposedly, he started sporting the ‘stache to cover up scarring he received in battle, but this doesn’t translate well in the flash-forward. The trim, narrow moustache we were shown in 1937 wouldn’t even remotely cover the scarring shown on Poirot’s face in the closing moments of our little war movie — but it doesn’t seem to matter either way.
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Surrounding the moustache (which is a lot less impressive than the one from Orient Express), we see a face so smooth and scar-less it looks like it came out of a Dove advert. Presumably, the whole purpose of the prelude is to set up this facial hair lore — so the almost immediate lack of following through on it (his scars magically re-appear at the end) is a failure on makeup and costuming’s past.
After about fifteen minutes of a war movie, Death on the Nile remembered that it’s meant to be a pre-WWII mystery. So, we move to London in 1937, with Poirot settling down for a spot of dessert (or six) as he celebrates being the 1930’s equivalent of an influencer. It’s made clear he’s riding high off of the events of the previous movie. Orient Express is mentioned enough so that those who watched it can feel a little bit smug, but it isn’t necessary to understand Death on the Nile. That being said, it’s hard to understand Death on the Nile either way.
Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot isn’t necessarily bad. His commitment to doing the character justice is clear. For instance, he goes out of his way to highlight Poirot’s detailed-oriented nature when it comes to food. He also brings a bit of showmanship and swagger to the character, and at least attempts to connect the blink-and-you-miss-it Wartime backstory to the rest of the plot.
Unfortunately, Branagh ultimately falls a bit too short and tries a little bit too hard. His accent and mannerisms border on over-exaggeration, and there’s a heavy reliance on other people telling us Poirot is clever and arrogant rather than Branagh showing us that for himself. All of this gives the impression that the film is half-baked and rushed: which, if anyone has been keeping track of the production of this movie, we know couldn’t be further from the truth.
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As an Agatha Christie adaptation, mystery was always going to be at the heart of Death on the Nile, but the biggest mystery was going on behind the camera. An Armie Hammer-shaped mystery, with the leading man’s absence from the latest trailers and promotion of the film in light of off-camera controversies making his presence all the more clear.
Hammer’s first appearance as Simon Doyle involves an excruciating, elongated sequence of him gyrating and grinding on Jacqueline de Bellefort (Sex Education’s Emma Mackey) that has you watching between your fingers. In any case, a drawn-out dirty dancing sequence like that would feel unnecessary and uncomfortable to watch — but given the nature of the accusations being made about Hammer, its inclusion just feels bizarre.
After dry humping Mackey to such an extent that would probably make Maeve Wiley blush, Doyle waddles along behind de Bellefort to meet the smouldering Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) before proceeding to launch into a second uncomfortably-long dirty dance sequence with her. When the camera panned to Mackey looking concerned, I believe the impression was meant to be that of a scorned woman — but personally, I think she might have just been as disturbed as the rest of us.
Out-of-place sexuality is the only consistent thing about this movie, and while I’m definitely no prude, having Gal Gadot make euphemisms about Armie Hammer’s snake before simulating sex on the side of a pyramid is enough for you to wish you were the one with a .22 bullet in your skull. The sexually-charged scenes might have worked better if Gadot and Hammer had any kind of on-screen chemistry, but unfortunately, Gadot is limited to the role of a personified pout.
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At one point, she dresses up as Cleopatra in what is meant to be a grandiose, awe-striking moment demonstrating her wealth, beauty, and status as a formidable femme-fatale. But it looked like she was on stilts, and was executed in such an offbeat and jarring way that it felt more like a moment from a Christmas pantomime. As for Hammer, the mummies in the pyramids were probably more animated than him in key moments in the story — even when he was purportedly shot in the leg and accused of murder, he only seemed capable of expressing mild annoyance.
That being said, it isn’t all bad: the visuals in the film are stunning: from sweeping, golden pyramids, cruise ships so well-embellished that they scream too-rich-for-their-own-good to incredibly atmospheric and artful shots of 1930s London. Moments of colour contrast with blood-red against muted backgrounds are used to amplify key moments in the story, and this is done well — but the problem is, the story itself just… isn’t that good.
Of all the talent in the movie, including Russell Brand, French and Saunders, Gal Gadot, and the return of Tom Bateman as Bouc, it is only Mackey and Bateman who are fully given the room to explore their acting chops — and in doing so barely hold the film together, with Mackey’s expert switching from vulnerable girl, scorned woman to cunning femme fatale serving as the anchor that stops the ship going out of control entirely.
The movie’s climactic mystery remains a surprise for those who haven’t read the novel before, but that’s only because a lot of the characters remain so static, you genuinely can’t think of any theories for yourself. Bouc’s pairing with Rosalie Otterbourne is pleasant, with Letitia Wright doing a decent enough job, but as with Hammer, the external controversies surrounding the actor make it difficult to fully immerse yourself into their character.
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Another highlight from the movie is Sophie Okonedo as Salome Otterbourne, who, despite only being in a handful of scenes undoubtedly steals the show with both her performance, personality and sharp wit. She bounces off Branagh’s Poirot with a healthy amount of cynicism and realism that the character somehow lacks, and with her and Poirot seeming to have a lingering, unsaid chemistry in the closing moments of the movie, she is probably Branagh’s last hope unless Poirot wants to investigate the death of his cinematic franchise next.
The problem with Poirot is that there are a handful of good moments — they are just all bodged together in a poorly executed film that has been doomed to failure since the start. But it didn’t have to be this way. Given how long the film took to make, you’d expect it to be a lot better than it was. There’s been more than one deep crease in the film’s production process, but they failed to iron it out and instead decided to embrace the chaos — and while it paid off on occasion, it mostly didn’t.
Death on the Nile is in theatres from 11 February.
A camp, confusing, and indisputably messy event aboard a sinking ship.