Skip to main content

‘Death on the Nile’ review: Kenneth Branagh shines in engaging Poirot mystery

Kenneth Branagh’s second Agatha Christie adaptation lives up to the first, but with a bit more genuine emotion.

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in 'Death on the Nile'.
(Image: © 20th Century Studios)

Our Verdict

If this is to be the end of the road for Branagh’s Poirot, it’s an appropriately high note to go out on.

For

  • - An almost uniformly great cast
  • - Themes of love and greed shine through in this telling

Against

  • - Poirot's backstory comes across as slightly superfluous
  • - Gal Gadot continues to not be great at delivering lengthy dialogue

When director Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express came out in 2017, it was something of a surprise hit, feeding a hunger for star-studded whodunnits. Branagh’s over-the-top performance as detective Hercule Poirot perfectly punctuated the movie, inflecting the character with equal parts absurdity and gravitas. 

So, with Branagh returning to the Agatha Christie mystery well in Death on the Nile, one might expect the performance to lean into that bombast and play with the whimsy that charmed audiences the first time around. Instead, Branagh dials the performance back a peg, leaning into some of Poirot’s more tragic characterizations, leading to a film that is about on par with its predecessor, with tonal shifts that bring as much to the table as they take away.

Similar to Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile is a murder mystery contained to a mode of transport with a limited cast of suspects that have the motive and opportunity to commit the crime implied by the title. Poirot is present as the guest of newlyweds Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), the former of which is greatly disturbed by the stalking presence of her former friend, and Simon’s former lover, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). 

When a murder finally does rear its ugly head, a veritable cavalcade of suspects presents itself in the form of the wedding party, from Linnet’s godmother (Jennifer Saunders) and her companion (Dawn French), a blues singer (Sophie Okonedo) and her manager niece (Letitia Wright), Linnet’s jilted former lover (Russell Brand), Linnet’s attorney (Ali Fazal) and even Poirot’s old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his overbearing mother (Annette Benning).

The mystery of Death on the Nile is not quite as novel as that presented on the Orient Express, so if one is not familiar with Christie’s novel and is keyed into the film’s themes, it’s not nearly as difficult to deduce the conclusion before the film intends you to. That’s not necessarily a problem for an adaptation of a well-known story that has been iterated upon so many times in the intervening 85 years since its release. 

Branagh, with screenwriter Michael Green, sees this as an opportunity to capitalize upon examinations of the story’s central themes of money, love and the tragic ways in which they intersect. To delve much deeper into specifics would be to give the game away, but suffice it to say each member of the principal cast is given the opportunity to show off some facet of the tangled webs that romantic affection weaves that might lead to fatal consequences.

The cast is almost uniformly excellent in doing so, with the exception of Gal Gadot, whose post-Wonder Woman career really emphasizes that she is much better suited to being an ethereal on-screen presence than a dialogue-laden leading woman. 

However, the film’s boldest adaptational inclination is toward Branagh himself, with Poirot now having a bit of backstory that bears thematic relevance to the story at hand. On the one hand, it is a little bit silly that Branagh felt it necessary to elucidate an origin story for his Poirot’s now-infamous mustache, but it ultimately adds a dimension to the character that tempers the performance’s high theatrics into a more imminently relatable form.

Perhaps it is a pat observation, but if you enjoyed Murder on the Orient Express, you’re going to enjoy Death on the Nile. It’s the same kind of handsomely shot, character-driven drama as the first film that revived Poirot in the public consciousness, while its innovations are minor enough that they are more noteworthy as curiosities than judgments of quality. 

If Disney and 20th Century Studios were so inclined, they could churn out one of these films every couple of years and find a consistent audience in love with stories of crime and the beautiful people who commit them. But if this second installment is to be the end of the road for Branagh’s Poirot, it’s an appropriately high note to go out on.

Death on the Nile opens exclusively in movie theaters on Feb. 11, 2022.

Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.