It would seem that every film I review lately starts with an embarrassing admission: I’m not the biggest fan of ‘whodunits (a.k.a. Murder Mysteries for all you younger folk). Sure, I can roll with the concept of a gumshoe whose deductive and investigative powers are so superior to those of normal human beings that they border on “godly”. After all, I’m totally fine with it when it’s couched in a super-hero or science-fiction conceit, such as the recent Sherlock Holmes films and BBC TV Series, where the titular detective’s instincts are as extra-sensory as that of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’s, or as keen as that of The Batman, who isn’t called the World’s Greatest Detective for nothing.
The idea, however, that entire group of murder suspects (including the murderer) would calmly sit together in a room while a lone detective struts about, slowly uncovering the killer’s identity as if he or she were telling a scary bedtime story to children, rather than the killer just shooting the detective in the first place, or even smarter, murdering the detective in advance as insurance, well, frankly I’ve always found that convention preposterous, even though it is a beloved staple of the Murder Mystery genre.
Then, of course, there are the theatrics, like the locking of the doors so no one can escape, and the excruciating build up to the reveal itself, during which all the loose strands, including the explanation of evidence yet unaccounted for, the elimination of red herrings and the ruling out of false suspects must all be checked off the list before the detective can finally expose the murderer.
Director Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile (2022), a modern retelling of famed novelist Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel of the same name and a direct sequel to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express (also directed by Branagh), is a ‘whodunit that totally revels in these sorts of dramatics. And yet, I still enjoyed this film, especially when held up against its prequel (which I, ofcourse, also watched in preparation so that I’d have a proper frame of reference for this review).
“Director Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile (2022), … is a ‘whodunit that totally revels in these sorts of dramatics.”
Naturally, Branagh reprises his role as the esteemed Hercule Poirot, former policeman and “probably the greatest detective in the world” by the character’s own humble estimation, and if you think the ego of our favourite mustachioed Belgian sleuth has ebbed one iota since we saw him last, you’d be sadly mistaken. Likewise, Branagh as an actor isn’t really known for being subtle, so anyone coming fresh to this film expecting the more reserved Poirot stylings of the BBC TV series’ David Suchet or the 1978 film version’s Peter Ustinov had best be ready to see some spit fly from that famous Belgian ‘stache, because this Poirot has a bit of a temper and isn’t afraid to use it as an interrogative tool.
Also returning is Poirot’s close friend and serial philanderer, Bouc, whom Poirot runs into by chance while on vacation in Egypt. Bouc has fallen upon difficult times in the months following the murder that took place on his wealthy uncle’s luxury train that he was formerly in charge of (yes, as in The Orient Express). By the time he and Poirot reunite, he is effectively a “kept man,” travelling alongside and under the watchful eye of his mother, Euphemia Bouc, which has understandably struck a serious blow to his usual debauchery. The Boucs are invited guests of the insanely wealthy socialite newlyweds Simon Doyle and Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle, who just so happen to be celebrating their honeymoon at the same hotel Poirot himself is staying at, The Cataract, a situation which inevitably entangles the detective in the couple’s affairs.
The Doyles eventually approach Poirot to hire his services as they are being menacingly stalked by Simon’s former fiancé and Linnet’s one-time friend Jacqueline, who has gone as far as to follow them all the way from London to Egypt to steal Simon back, by any means necessary. Poirot refuses the job, as he is on vacation, but he agrees to speak to Jacqueline to try and persuade her to give up on her potentially murderous pursuit. When Jacqueline playfully brandishes a .22 pistol stored in her purse and expresses her intent to use it during their second such conversation, Poirot reports back to the couple advising that they cancel their lavish honeymoon plans and return to the comparative safety of London.
“… if you think the ego of our favourite mustachioed Belgian sleuth has ebbed one iota since we saw him last, you’d be sadly mistaken.”
Of course, the couple instead decides that packing the entire party of invited honeymoon guests aboard a steamboat to sightsee along the Nile River is somehow the safer option, especially when it’s conveniently the same steamboat that Poirot has booked a ticket on for his own holiday plans. Throw in a guest list full of so-called friends and loved ones of whom many might possibly have their own reasons to see Linnet dead, plus Jacqueline eventually finding a way onto the steamboat (she buys a ticket and hires a boat to catch up to the steamer, fancy that), and you have all the basic ingredients you need for an old-timey murder mystery!
Getting back to Bouc though (who to my knowledge does not exist in any other dimension of the Poirot multiverse and was created specifically for Branagh’s franchise), his inclusion in this second film is easily the smartest move that Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green could have made. The curtailing of Bouc’s Lothario-like ambitions by the presence of his mother not only grounds him more convincingly in the story than before, but also allows the character’s formerly aimless and aloof energy to be funnelled into far more important directions, such as keeping both Poirot and the audience abreast of the story’s many characters early in the film and serving as Poirot’s lone trusted friend and confidant among them.
Unlike Murder on the Orient Express, whose cast consisted of characters previously unknown to both Poirot and Bouc apart from their reputations, the guests of the Doyles’ honeymoon party are effectively his people, and it takes him only a minute in the lobby of the Cataract Hotel to size up most of the characters for Poirot (and hence the audience) upon their arrival.
Similar to the previous film, the cast of Death on the Nile is stacked with a star-studded cast of performers that will likely make it difficult for viewers to suss out the identity of the murderer if they haven’t already read or watched an earlier version of the story, but this time around, even Bouc is technically a potential suspect just by the nature of his connection to some of the other characters, ultimately raising the stakes for Poirot as he conducts his investigation.
Another element I very much enjoyed in this film is Branagh’s willingness to open up Poirot’s character and reveal to the audience how flawed, imperfect, and dare I say, human, Hercule Poirot is. Murder on the Orient Express straight away introduced audiences to the funny-but-not so funny Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that drives Poirot’s exacting investigative methods and extreme attention to detail. Not to mention a rather unreasonable insistence on being served boiled eggs that are perfectly symmetrical and hors d’oeuvres that are presented in even numbers only, but it is Death on the Nile that digs deeper into Hercule’s WW1 past, his deforming injury, and the cause behind the loss of his beloved wife, Katherine, whom he still mourns.
Furthermore, while the key events (read: multiple murders) that took place in Agatha Christie’s original novel as well as the 1978 film are more or less faithfully adhered to, Branagh gives us a Poirot that visibly internalizes his failure to prevent those deaths. He openly acknowledges how his own lies, accusations, and deception employed in his unwavering pursuit of the truth can bring irreparable, emotional harm to others, and, when appropriate, he even attempts to make amends in genuine ways, despite how badly timed and feeble they may appear.
“… the cast of Death on the Nile is stacked with a star-studded cast of performers that will likely make it difficult for viewers to suss out the identity of the murderer…”
Finally, I was truly surprised and pleased to see Branagh and Green introduce a love interest “sub-subplot” involving Poirot and the character of Salome Otterbourne (played by Hotel Rwanda’s Sophie Okonedo), who, along with the character of her niece Rosalie (Black Panther’s Letitia Wright) were re-written from the dated, obviously white characters that they were into two strong, resilient and memorable black female characters. Salome, now a mature, successful travelling jazz-singer and musician, and Rosalie a whip-smart manager whose childhood friendship with Linnet has them taking part in the honeymoon party as guests as well as hired performers.
The budding interracial romance between Poirot and Salome largely consists of the detective stumbling awkwardly over his words, while Salome’s subtle yet direct hints that the attraction might be mutual put him on the spot again and again. It’s refreshingly entertaining nonetheless and concludes quite fittingly under the circumstances and, overall, represents a turn of events that I would never have expected to see in a film like this.
It’s also nice to see the POC representation shouldered by Leslie Odom Jr. and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo in Murder on the Orient Express balloon from two principal actors into a whopping three in Death on the Nile, with Ali Fazal playing Linnet’s lawyer cousin Andrew Katchadourian next to Okonedo and Wright. All joking aside, to see this kind of progress in a film genre that is already very niche, typically consists of small casts and is set in eras that can more easily explain away a lack of ethnic cast members, well it’s encouraging.
“The budding interracial romance between Poirot and Salome largely consists of the detective stumbling awkwardly over his words, while Salome’s subtle yet direct hints that the attraction might be mutual put him on the spot again and again.”
Truth be told, I think the only element of Death on the Nile that truly suffers is the Nile. It makes sense that the location for principal photography was set in Morocco rather than the film’s setting of Egypt, as some of the things that the Doyle honeymoon party get up to around, in or on famous landmarks like the Great Pyramids and the Temple of Abu Simbel would have been beyond scandalous had they been shot on those actual sites. Nonetheless, the film is still a visually extravagant, moving postcard of at least three of Egypt’s great wonders, in addition to being a murder mystery, so it’s a shame that the names of key locations as well as the lore of Abu Simbel are quickly spurted out of characters mouths over and over again without proper reverence, explanation, or clarity.
It’s as if the Nile tour is in such a hurry to wrap by sunset that there is simply no time for anyone to comfortably take it all in. Apart from the blatant sexual innuendo about “riding a horse” rattled off by Simon and Linnet as they attempt to get busy in a place where they clearly shouldn’t, I’d be very surprised if any audience members like myself who have never been to Egypt actually catch any of the meaning behind the statues without a second viewing, which is a shame if you also hope to learn something while being entertained. Thankfully, there’s always the internet and Wikipedia.
On the whole, however, Death on the Nile is a timely and thoroughly entertaining remake of the original novel that handily improves upon its 1978 incarnation as well as its own 2017 prequel by raising the emotional stakes for its protagonist, Poirot, and showing more of his vulnerable side, with more than a little help of from its talented, start-studded ensemble cast, of course.
If you’re a Bouc fan like me, you’ll appreciate the modest yet noticeable growth that both Poirot and Bouc have experienced since their ill-fated adventure on the Orient Express. If you’ve already seen one of the earlier versions of this film, you’ll likely get a kick out of the modern twists and tweaks that Branagh and Green have made to it. And if you’ve never watched a murder mystery on the big screen before, I honestly can’t think of a better way for novices to begin their whodunit education.