Kenneth Branagh is an enigma whose mystery is consistently broadcast by his every move. A thespian whose forte is showmanship and whose downfall is anything but. Death on the Nile may be his crowning achievement in showmanship. In his second outing as Agatha Christie’s ubiquitous detective Hercule Poirot, Branagh feasts where he had only grazed before, now indulging his gaudiest instincts (which happen to be his best instincts). Picking up where runaway hit Murder on the Orient Express left off, Poirot is on vacation in Egypt when he is caught in the middle of yet another murder mystery even more devastating than the last.
Nile is a lavish exercise in how far one man’s ego can go, an embellishment of a character in service of its actor, director, and producer. As another throwback whodunnit, it fires on every cylinder, and as an examination of how much one man loves putting on a show, it works even better. All of this to say, it’s the most fun I’ve had at the theater in months.
Doing away with the dissection of Sir Kenny for a moment, the movie really does work at face value. It’s an uber sleek mystery that borders on ostentatious but somehow remains keenly aware that it doesn’t have the firepower to cross that line. The production and costume design are as stunning as they could be, Patrick Doyle’s score is aptly grand, and the cinematography is quietly wonderful with a lengthy one-take during an opening sequence in a nightclub being the standout. The mystery itself is a reliable tale with twists and turns galore – it wouldn’t be Christie if it wasn’t – and writer Michael Green knows what to modify and what to keep in order to make the story work. However, the cast bringing it to life is perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie, because it could not be made clearer that Kenneth Branagh has no idea what makes a movie star. There is a truly fascinating misunderstanding of the movie star as a concept, a strange note that was present in Express but in full effect in Nile.
In the roles of the enigmatic couple whose honeymoon is the setting for the entrapment, he has cast Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer, two of the least charismatic people to grace the screen in recent years. It’s not hard to see why they would fit, as they both have bonafide star quality when it comes to looks, but ask for anything more than a smirk and their screen presence dwindles and dies. Following his casting of Daisy Ridley, (a great actress but one who lacks star power due to Hollywood’s confusion as with what to do with her) in Murder, he has found a successor in the brilliant Emma Mackey. She is another someone who truly should be a star, yet is not! These rising British talents had breakout roles in Star Wars and Sex Education that Branagh may have seen as surefire paths to stardom, yet he misjudged.
This misconception has nothing to do with Mackey's performance in Nile, which is nothing short of star-making. And it also has nothing to do with the countless controversies that the majority of the cast members have faced in the past few years! From the worst of them in Armie Hammer’s sexual assault allegations to the middling of them in Letitia Wright and Russell Brand’s anti-vax stances to the downright comedic of them in Gal Gadot’s infamous Imagine video (and her much less funny Zionist stances). Despite all of this, there are some standouts: Sophie Okonedo and Annette Bening turn in performances with what I can only imagine was a premeditated goal of stealing the movie.
Yet, at the heart of the cast lies Branagh as the mustachioed detective whose life must have balance and whose accent must be sillier in every scene. The mustache, might I add, gets a lengthy black and white prologue dedicated to its origin in what can only be described as 1917-cosplay, which in itself is already a bad imitation of better movies. It’s a prologue in which not only does the mustache get a backstory, but wherein Branagh is revealed, de-aged, with the same grandeur as Lawrence of Arabia. The opening is truly a perfect tone-setter for what’s to come, as the rest of the movie only builds on it, equally self-aware and utterly blind.
See, Poirot has never been all that important to the Poirot books. He’s a detective with lovable quirks and distinct characteristics that make him easy to digest and a perfect employee of justice. However, in these two movies starring and directed by Branagh, he is now suddenly the focus of these stories, not dissimilar to how Daniel Craig’s run as Bond made him into a protagonist with a heart in a franchise with a throughline where there wasn’t one. It’s ironic that, just as Craig leaves his tenure as Bond for the more loosely attached escapades of Benoit Blanc in the Knives Out series, Branagh is inserting himself into Christie’s pantheon as an end-all, be-all hero who we must now care about. A distinct difference between the serialization of Bond and Poirot is that Craig simply happened to be Bond at a time when the higher-ups wanted to serialize 007, where Branagh is intentionally Poirot and is serializing him on his own accord.
None of this is a bad thing, by the way. In fact, all of the miscalculations are what makes the movie work as well as it does. What’s fascinating is Branagh’s inability to go small. The man’s directorial career succeeds at the ridiculous extravagance of doing Hamlet word for word in the nineties and Cinderella with Cate Blanchett doing an evil stepmother snatch game. He’s someone who falls flat on his face trying his luck with intimate character dramas or hefty action movies. The man is a showman to the bone. Loud, garish, nonsensical drama done, against all odds, with enough sophistication to make you want to scream because somehow, someway, he pulled it off. Death on the Nile is the zenith of every ridiculous instinct and quirk in Branagh’s toolbox, and I truly hope he makes all thirty-some-odd Poirot stories.