In early 2018, I found myself chatting with the owner of a UK cinema chain. His mood was euphoric. Business, he said, was bad. It all comes down to one movie: Kenneth Branagh Murder on the Orient Express, an ultra-shiny, star-studded version of Agatha Christie. But isn’t that supposed to be terrible, someone asked? “I don’t think our crowd cares,” was the reply. He made a happy smile. “And you should see how much wine they consume.”
Branagh and his self-projecting turn as Hercule Poirot are now back in Death on the Nile, another film that can best be enjoyed marinated. The power of the stars is again in the foreground. The huge cast includes, but is not limited to, comic book heroines (Gal Gadot, Letitia Wright), high-end veterans (Annette Bening), and a glitch in Armie Hammer. Since making the film, the actor has faced multiple allegations of sexual abuse, which he has denied.
Those who take another bottle could find themselves caught off guard. A prequel set in World War I feels surprisingly dark. It also says something about Branagh’s overall goals. The new movie having been dragged to the Marvel at the end of Orient-Express, the detective is now getting the kind of dark-hued origin story that modern superheroes get. (Strictly speaking, that’s the origin story of his mustache.) With an eye on Poirots to come, world-building is underway.
The director already has a lot on his hands. The tone is funambulist. With the script making a theme of loss, Branagh clearly doesn’t want to do a full panto. Yet while its shy coconut of famous faces lets loose their haphazard accents, the vibe is also far from adult.
Cut to a smoky jazz club in 1937 London, Gadot and Hammer hit the dance floor as heiress and object of his desire. Sophie Okonedo appears on and off stage as a socialite blues siren, one of many departures from Christie and the earlier 1978 film adaptation. For now, Poirot is keeping quiet. And then the main event, all of the above and more brought together in an Egypt of pyramids, pharaoh tombs and non-speaking extras in fez. Give them enough trope. . .
Your ability to settle sleepily into the river cruise and the upcoming murder mystery may hinge on how comfortable you are with the presence of Hammer, sadly cast as a sex magnet. The director has pushed his male lead to the margins of the edit, but the whole story hinges on his character. You don’t envy Branagh’s fate, but perhaps you prefer to sympathize from a distance.
The balance continues. The essence of the film is pure BBC1 Sunday night. (The cast also includes Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders). Yet more than ever, people need compelling reasons not to spend Sunday night watching television. So the big screen is not only teeming with movie stars, but a luxurious update of the aesthetic of a 70s holiday brochure. A golden light shines on the Nile (actually Surrey); diamonds sparkle even more (especially Tiffany). Even a plate of cookies looks epic.
The biggest cookie of all, of course, is Branagh. Much of the cast are spares before the shooter begins. But the star director is everywhere, the obsessive rough edges of this Poirot smoothed over with avuncular wisdom. He also gets the best joke, a morbid gag involving hams (knowingly delivered).
Between Covid and its other issues, the movie’s release has been delayed so long that it’s now coming out after Branagh’s Belfast. This film’s story helps explain its director’s penchant for big, wide hokum like this. Death on the Nile reciprocate by not being flexible enough to destroy Belfast‘s Oscar Chances by Association. The ball is dodged.
In UK and US cinemas from February 11