The champagne is sparkling, the wood decks are gleaming, and the white linens are pressed to a crisp. The glittering cast of “Death on the Nile” is all dressed up but, alas, they have nowhere to go.
Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the Agatha Christie murder mystery, the follow-up to his 2017 “Murder on the Orient Express,” finds the filmmaker once again behind the camera and in front of it as the legendary detective Hercule Poirot. And while it’s clear he’s having a ball as the elaborately mustachioed supersleuth, the journey for us isn’t quite as much escapist fun. There’s a distracting detachment at work here, both in the visual effects and performances. Individual moments from supporting players bring the film to life only sporadically. And while his A-list stars, Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot, may be impossibly beautiful, they’re both oddly stiff and have zero romantic chemistry with each other. (Hammer has other problems, off-screen, which we’ll get to in a moment.)
“Orient Express” writer Michael Green returns to adapt the screenplay, and he’s made some tweaks, which provide some welcome diversity; Sophie Okonedo and Letitia Wright are the primary standouts among the ensemble cast. But it takes an awful long time for the proceedings to get going and the tension to begin mounting. Branagh and Green’s cleverest and most compelling move is the flashback they’ve attached at the start: a striking, black-and-white depiction of the young Poirot in the trenches of World War I, where he demonstrates the resourcefulness and sharp wit that will become his trademarks. A convincingly de-aged Branagh also allows us to witness the origin story of Poirot’s signature mustache, which launches the film on a note of shock and heartbreak. I would rather have watched the rest of that movie; it had texture and verve to it. Instead, we get “Death on the Nile.”
Jumping ahead to 1937 London, we see the established and adored Poirot entering a packed and jumping blues club, where Okonedo’s Salome Otterbourne is performing on stage. Her niece, Wright’s Rosalie Otterbourne, is also her tough-as-nails manager. But there’s a show for Poirot to take in on the floor, as well: the handsome Simon Doyle (Hammer) and his vivacious fiancée, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), are tearing it up with an erotic, acrobatic dance. Seeing Hammer introduced this way, in such an aggressively physical and sexual manner, makes it impossible to ignore the allegations of assault and abuse that several women have made against the actor. (He has denied them and said that whatever occurred within these relationships was consensual. Still, it’s hard to shake that unsettling feeling.)
But once Jacqueline introduces Simon to her childhood friend, the ravishing heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gadot), he only has eyes for her. And who could blame him? This is where Branagh’s choice to shoot in 65mm is particularly effective. Gadot’s entrance into the smoky club, in a drapey, metallic silver gown, is so dreamy and creamy, it’s richer in fantasy and escape than anything that happens later on the boat. In no time, Simon and Linnet are married, and Poirot finds himself swept up in their tony honeymoon celebration on the Nile while vacationing in Egypt.