In the Age of a Pandemic, Death on the Nile Is Kind of a Special Treat
Death on the Nile is a date movie. Sort of. While the cinema experience in the time of COVID is completely different with social distancing and no eating rules, you might not miss it while engrossed in this whodunit based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name. It’s another Hercule Poirot story, a sequel to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, with Kenneth Branagh in the director’s seat and also as the mustachioed Belgian detective.
Branagh’s epic, sweeping shots are a wonderful reminder that some things are better seen on the big screen. The film opens with a flashback to Poirot’s days in the army during World War I, essentially an origin story for what may be the world’s most manicured mustache. Afterwards, we’re introduced to the cast of characters by way of a smoke-filled jazz bar and a wildly sensuous dance number between actual, probable cannibal Armie Hammer and Margot Robbie Doppelgänger Emma Mackey. Hammer’s casting as Simon Doyle is unfortunate as his character immediately becomes suspect, which is a shame because it takes away from the experience.
Wonder Woman Gal Gadot plays Simon’s new bride, Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle, filthy rich heiress and former best friend to Jackie de Bellefort (Mackey). The cast of characters is an assortment of Linnet’s friends and associates, each one with a possible motive to commit the expected murder which happens much, much later in the film because Branagh indulges the audience with lavish cinematography of a romantic boat ride along the Nile.
Again, this is sort of a date movie. The theme of love is repeatedly mentioned throughout the film, from Poirot’s self-loathing while confined in an army hospital to the whirlwind romance between Simon and Linnet to the forbidden dalliance between Rosalie Otterbourne (Letitia Wright) and Bouc (Tom Bateman), who returns from Murder on the Orient Express. There are some notable changes from the novel, as Bouc takes the place of Tim Allerton perhaps for some continuity and more emotional weight. Poirot’s friendship with the much younger Bouc is one of the film’s more resonant notes.
There are far more twists and turns in Christie’s novel, with several subplots dropped to streamline the story and keep the focus on the theme of love. Branagh is a consummate storyteller, and his love for Poirot and his world comes across through his romanticization of the era. Rosalie’s race change to a black woman adds some context and tension to the challenges of love beyond disparity of class and wealth.
Russell Brand, who disappointingly does no comedy whatsoever, plays Linnet’s former fiancé while Jackie is an obsessive stalker ex who claims that Simon still loves her. Even Linnet’s maid Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie) has a backstory about heartbreak and, of course, Poirot himself gets lost reminiscing about his former lover as he narrates.
At a time where travel is limited, Death on the Nile is kind of a special treat. Seeing a not-quite-noticeably-CGI Egypt on the big screen is an experience on its own. Branagh paces the film in slow, deliberate fashion, an homage to old films and a parallel to the languid movement of the opulent steamboat, the Karnak, on the river. Branagh had a full-size river cruise ship built for the film, so they shot everything on an actual art deco-decked facsimile of a luxury steamboat.
It certainly adds to the grandeur and authenticity of the experience. There’s murder, sure, but you already expect that coming into the film. It’s in the title, after all. There’s the whole guessing game if you haven’t read the book, of course, but really, it’s like taking a river cruise without the mosquitoes and the threat of being shot or stabbed. On the big screen it’s pretty glorious, and with the one-seat-apart new normal mandate the viewing is more transportive. Come for the murder, stay for the boat ride.