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‘Death on the Nile’ Review: Gal Gadot Shines, and Kenneth Branagh Ups His Agatha Christie Game

Branagh's second Christie thriller, in which he once again plays Hercule Poirot as a wry dyspeptic noodge, sharpens the tension on 2017's "Murder on the Orient Express."

Death on the Nile
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Agatha Christie was born in 1890, and the heyday of movie adaptations of her novels goes quite a ways back (like, 70 or 80 years). The whole structure and flavor of this sort of delectably engineered whodunit, with its cast of suspects drawn in deliberate broad strokes and its know-it-all detective whose powers of deduction descend directly from Sherlock Holmes, is rooted in the cozy symmetry of the studio-system era. The last big-screen Christie adaptation that could be considered an all-out success, critically and commercially, was probably Sidney Lumet’s 1974 “Murder on the Orient Express,” a lavishly corny and irresistible amusement in which Albert Finney played the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as a fussbudget egomaniac with pursed lips and hair that resembled an oil slick (he was like Inspector Clouseau with a brain transplant).

“Murder on the Orient Express” was actually an event movie (it received half a dozen Oscar nominations, and Ingrid Bergman even won). But the Christie adaptations that followed — “Death on the Nile” (1978), “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980), “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) — were half-baked suspense films that felt, collectively, like the fading embers of a genre. In recent decades, the Christie formula has seemed more at home on television (e.g., the British “Miss Marple” series), where it has come off as less hermetic and precious — that is, until Kenneth Branagh picked up the gauntlet for his 2017 remake of “Murder on the Orient Express.” That picture was something of a mixed bag: sterling production values, a puckish sense of play, not enough tension to an overly familiar mystery. But Branagh, acting from behind a mustache so extended it seemed to have its own geological layers, invested Poirot with a wry dyspeptic noodginess.

“Death on the Nile,” based on Christie’s 1937 novel, is essentially Branagh’s sequel to that film, and I was eager to see if he could tighten the screws on his version of the Christie genre. He does. The new film is crisper and craftier than “Murder on the Orient Express”; it’s a moderately diverting dessert that carries you right along. It never transcends the feeling that you’re seeing a relic injected with life serum, but that, in a way, is part of its minor-league charm.

Apart from Branagh, the first star of “Death on the Nile” is the Nile. Early on, the Egyptian locations feel a touch synthetic — you can tell the Pyramids are CGI — but by the time the characters are wandering through the dusty nooks and crannies of Abu Simbel, the massive riverside temple carved out of a cliff as a monument to King Ramesses II, it becomes a backdrop of arresting majesty. The second star is the S.S. Karnak, the sprawling, two-tiered riverboat steamer that’s hosting a dozen luxury vacationers. Full of passageways and compartments, it’s a paragon of 1930s wealth porn and a better, more elaborate vehicle for suspense than the Orient Express. The third star is a vengeful aristocratic love triangle, which succeeds at engaging us in the drama that precedes the murder, so that the foul play can then sharpen the tension.

At a London nightclub, the vampish heiress Linnet Ridgeway, played by Gal Gadot with a vivacious spark she hasn’t always shown outside the “Wonder Woman” films, takes a spin on the dance floor with Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), the fiancé of her best friend, Jacqueline (Emma Mackey). The three then show up on the Karnak — only Linnet and Simon are now married and on their honeymoon, while the jealous, betrayed Jacqueline has become their stalker. She’s toting a .22 caliber handgun, along with an ace motivation for murder.

I won’t reveal who gets killed, but the fact that we actively miss that person works for the movie. So does Hammer’s performance as the wily, arrogant, exceedingly tan Simon — the actor’s presence in the film, after accusations of abuse were leveled against him, has been considered problematic, but it must be said that he pops onscreen more than most of the other actors.

Branagh updates details like some telltale red paint, but he keeps the original story intact. “Death on the Nile” lopes along pleasantly enough, feeding on Poirot’s prickly drive to solve the mystery. In one interrogation, he gets seriously addled, a sign that Branagh wants us to take the detective’s obsessiveness seriously. The other sign is that he’s given Poirot a melancholy romantic subplot, which may be asking us to take him a little too seriously.

The plot touches on such detours as a Tiffany necklace worthy of Liz Taylor and a blue-suited doctor with jealousy issues of his own, though he’s so stoic about it that you may do a triple take when you realize the actor playing him is Russell Brand. It all comes together in the scene where Poirot gathers the suspects and solves the crime. For about 10 minutes, the movie take wing, which is what you want from an Agatha Christie movie. Then again, the scene may remind you that there’s a movie not based on Agatha Christie that so channels her spirit it’s effectively the best Christie film in half a century: “Knives Out.” “Death on the Nile,” decent as it is, can’t touch that film’s fusion of wit, excitement, and old-school whodunit glee. That’s not really a knock on Branagh. It’s just that once you’ve experienced Agatha Christie 2.0, it’s hard to go back.

‘Death on the Nile’ Review: Gal Gadot Shines, and Kenneth Branagh Ups His Agatha Christie Game

Reviewed at AMC Lincoln Square, New York, Jan. 25, 2022. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 127 MIN.

  • Production: A 20th Century Studios release of a TSG Entertainment, Kinberg Genre, Scott Free Productions, The Mark Gordon Company production. Producers: Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund. Executive producers: Mark Gordon, Simon Kinberg, Matthew Jenkins, James Prichard, Matthew Prichard.
  • Crew: Director: Kenneth Branagh. Screenplay: Michael Green. Camera: Haris Zambarloukos. Editor: Úna Ni Dhonghaíle. Music: Patrick Doyle.
  • With: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Ali Fazal, Russell Brand, Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright, Dawn French.