‘Death on the Nile’ is a whodunit pleasure cruise with panache

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After a coronavirus-imposed lull, it appears the renaissance of the murder mystery movie is back with its two principal contributors. There is Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” series, with Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc, which will see its second entry later this year. Then there is Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot revival, beginning with 2017’s readaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and now the release of “Death on the Nile,” based on Christie’s 1937 novel of the same name.

Delayed for over a year because of COVID-19 concerns and abuse allegations against co-star Armie Hammer, the film lands in the traditionally deadly February release window, yet against the backdrop of a still-starving theater scene. The result is a crackerjack whodunit laced with Branagh’s directorial panache and a sizable cast that ranges from adequate to astounding.

Branagh again pulls double-duty, also portraying the renowned Poirot. A cold open flashes back to the 1914 Belgium front, with young Poirot as an World War I infantryman. The black-and-white segment serves two functions: it shows how and why Poirot later adopted his prominent handlebar mustache, and it establishes that Branagh is well-suited to make a feature war film. Fast-forward to 1937, three years after the setting of “Orient Express,” and Poirot finds himself in Egypt seemingly on holiday. He runs into Bouc (Tom Bateman, reprising his role from “Orient Express”) and his mother Euphemia (Annette Benning), who invite Poirot to join a celebration of the nuptials between socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Hammer).

The two met six months earlier in a steamy London jazz club — where Poirot also happened to be present — after being introduced by Simon’s then-girlfriend Jacqueline (Emma Mackey, terrific). Over a half-dozen other guests arrive, all with some latent ax to grind against Linnet, including her greedy cousin Andrew (Ali Fazal), her former beau Linus (Russell Brand), her socialist godmother Marie (Jennifer Saunders), and ex-classmate Rosalie (Letitia Wright), who is secretly dating Bouc and whose aunt, Salome (Sophie Okonedo, outstanding), is a jazz singer hired to be the event’s entertainment.

When the still-steamed Jacqueline crashes the party, the group charters a luxury steamer to cruise the Nile. After Jacqueline finds her way aboard the boat, too, an argument between her and Simon ends with Simon shot in the leg and, the next morning, Linnet shot in the head while lying in her bed. Poirot leaps into action to crack the case, interviewing passengers and uncovering their respective motives. Two other murders occur as Poirot tries to ascertain the truth and unveil the killer, while Poirot also reveals the real reason for his initial presence in Egypt.

The decision to not reshoot Hammer’s scenes following sex abuse charges lodged against him in March 2021 seem understandable after seeing his ubiquitous presence in the movie. The taut triangular chemistry between he, Gadot, and Mackey is one of the film’s fulcrums. Okonedo’s role grows as the story goes along, in proper proportion to her acting ability and meaty dialogue. And Branagh’s Poirot carries the right blend of craftiness, wit, arrogance, mischievousness and even melancholy. He is a keen observer but not infallible, prone to missteps but still the smartest person in the room.

“Death on the Nile” is cinematic comfort food, an engrossing but breezy chamber piece with sufficient depth of setting and character. It’s a world that is fun to visit, and one I hope Branagh returns to in future sequels.

 

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