Death on the Nile (Review): Nothing Special But It’s Harmless Fun (Minus the Murder)

Kenneth Branagh and crew return for their second Agatha Christie novel adaptation. How was Death on the Nile? Read on for my thoughts…

DISCLAIMER: I’ve never read the original story. So don’t complain (too much) if the details I share aren’t accurate to the book.

The wedding of a rich young socialite to a “nobody” invites scorn, jealousy, and confusion from her entourage. This woman, convinced she and her husband are in danger, asks world famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) to keep an eye on her friends. This group of socialites was a powder keg to begin with, and the aforementioned wedding lit a fuse to their core. Gather all these people onto a cruise ship, and their inevitable eruption leads to Death on the Nile.

DotN begins strangely with an origin for Poirot’s moustache of all things… That’s the least badass way I can describe a WW1 action sequence, but it is what it is! The set-piece is relatively tame, if somewhat generic, but effectively displays Poirot’s cunning mind.

I’d never thought to question Poirot’s backstory, though it was nice to learn something new of our main character. Much of Poirot as we know him is evidently forged in tragedy. This knowledge adds new dimensions to the pompous detective. But the same information might have been relayed to us more efficiently. We didn’t learn enough about Poirot’s history to justify an entire cold open about it.

Kenneth Branagh as Detective Hercule Poirot– Death on the Nile

From here we flash forward to a night club and are introduced to five new characters. Most of this scene consists of a sensuous dance number which was, frankly, uncomfortable to watch. The PDA on display gave me second-hand embarrassment, the camera gets so close to the performers that we’re forced to watch every detail of this mating ritual, and it goes on for the length of an entire song… That said: this scene sets up key plot points for later– some only if you’re paying close attention to the actors’ non-verbal performances.

Death on the Nile features 13 characters (perhaps they should have known in advance that unluckiness should befall the group). My brain tends to overload itself with casts this big. I’m known to forget who people are, or confuse faces. Yet DotN’s main cast manages to stay distinct and memorable (at least while you’re watching)! This was a pleasant surprise.

These roles would not feel so vibrant if not for the great cast which brought them to life! Though I hesitate to mention anyone specifically… Anybody I discuss, even in passing, might accidentally lead you to a spoiler– or make you think you’re spoiled. So I’ll focus on Hercule Poirot. That’s safe enough right?

DotN delves deep into Poirot’s feelings, testing his emotional resolve in multiple scenarios. His only-too-human frailties of the heart trip him up in key instances. It’s only through burying his heart (unhealthy though that may be) that he is able to unleash the cold, calculating might of his little grey cells. I enjoy seeing the personal cost of Poirot’s detective work. He stops criminals yet must inevitably put his job before his joy.

Many characters disparage Poirot’s behaviour at some point or another. Both innocent and guilty hate how he airs their dirty laundry in front of them. What makes his actions worse is that he does it mainly to prove his intelligence. Poirot is cruel. But his deductions are part of his charm (until you’re on the other end of them). However, I became annoyed when EVERYBODY started taking his bluntness personally. As if they didn’t notice how he treated everyone else! Maybe that’s an issue with the screen play, or a commentary on vain rich people. It was frustrating after a while in any case.

I’ve also got to complain about DotN’s first act… Kenneth Branagh aimed to thoroughly establish DotN’s characters and their relations to one another (so I gather). And he did– for better and worse. The better: who am I to complain about decent character setup? The bad: too much of this murder mystery lacks… murder. The titled Death on the Nile doesn’t occur till over 1/3 through the run-time. I’m taking a guess at that number based on how it felt, but it was a LONG time coming for a film of this genre. The fun of these stories is in piecing together clues to find the killer– not in pre-murder set-up.

The cast of Death on the Nile one one of the film’s posters.

Thus far I’ve complained about the lengthiness of certain acts or scenes, though the film was well-paced overall. Its run-time is a little over 2 hours. And it felt exactly as long as it needed to be. So, whatever DotN’s flaws, it didn’t drag.

Death on the Nile‘s plotline is a twisty affair which kept me guessing right till its end. I was always a little behind in my personal “investigation” of the story’s clues. Every time I thought I’d realized something, they addressed my concern a scene or two later. This tells me I didn’t know much afterall. DotN carried my train (cruise?) of thought exactly where it wanted. I couldn’t outsmart this one short of a good guess…

One intriguing element: Branagh includes multiple establishing shots which featured animals hunting other animals along the Nile river. My interpretation: Branagh wanted to convey that predators lurked everywhere– both on the ship and outside. Also, they count towards a few more deaths on the Nile. A strictly necessary addition? No. But I enjoyed the symbolism.

Death on the Nile features superb set design! Obviously there was a good deal of CGI, but enough of the locations looked real that I had to research some behind-the-scenes. Apparently the production team rebuilt the temple of Abu Simbel to full scale! They also built the entire boat, over seven months. That production design team (headed by Jim Clay) needs a round of applause for the work they pulled off in this film! Their work was gorgeous and I appreciate their extensive efforts.

A full-scale boat allowed Kenneth Branagh and Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos to have some fun. Multiple long-takes feature characters walking the boat’s length. One memorable shot features a rise up from one deck to another. And it was evident there was no post-production trickery in these moments (so far as I could tell). This practical film-making allowed the set to come alive and immerse viewers.

Death on the Nile is ironically suitable for its Valentine’s Day weekend release, dark as its subject matter may be. Its main themes concern love and the extremes to which it drives people (both love of fellow humans, and material possessions– sometimes interchangeably). Each character serves as a case study for the various ways true love can destroy you. I don’t love the film’s cynicism but its point is effectively delivered.

One last note: I couldn’t understand what happened during the final stand-off. Its resolution was unclear to me. It’s possible my mind blanked for some integral moment which answered my confusion… but I’m gonna choose to believe it was the film’s fault.

DotN is a good film, all in all. ‘Twas still a fun outing to the theatre! And though I admittedly liked the product less after enhanced scrutiny, my opinion bottomed out at the below score. I’m a long-time fan of these “gentleman detective” narratives. I always wished to be that clever! Suffice it to say my two brushes with private investigations went embarrassingly badly… (LINK) Oh well. I can live vicariously through stories such as this,

If classically-styled murder mysteries are your thing, Death on the Nile is definitely Worth a Watch

Would you care to see more adventures from Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot? What did you think of Death on the Nile? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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