Review: Death on the Nile is a Mildly Satisfying Murder Mystery

Mysteries are all about deception. Especially the ones that manage to conceal all its cards by laying them bare right in front of you. This is the exact reason why Agatha Christie has been such a phenomenon for over 8 decades now. Talking about deception, there’s one in the very title of her 1937 novel “Death on the Nile.” This deception not only makes the back and forth between the characters and the infamous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot more exhilarating, but also makes it more intimidating. The reason? The stakes become higher and higher until they become a little too personal towards the end.

Now, Agatha Christie has been televised and filmed in various shapes and forms. She has laid the foundation for numerous mysteries that directly adapt her words, and some that get inspiration from it to weave a mystery of their own. And while I have been more of a fan of movies that try really hard to take the source material a notch higher with their own inputs, a good old-school detective outing is something that I am not too wary about either.

The reason why I was excited about Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 “Murder on Orient Express” is for the exact same reasons. I knew of the fact that Branagh has forever been a fan of Christie’s novels. So when he roped in an ensemble of A-listers to recreate the mystery on the Orient, I was amused, only to be disappointed by the fact that it did not hold a candle in front of the 1974 Sidney Lumet version. The cast hammed their way through the proceedings, and the final reveal was so oblique, unearned, and undercooked, that all it left me with was an image of Branagh’s mustache. A sight that isn’t too interesting to behold.

With his second outing as Hercule Poirot in “Death on the Nile”, Branagh seems to have heard some of the major complaints that viewers had with his previous film. I am sure of that because the director doesn’t just indulge us in one, but two prologues that both establish the detective’s beating heart, his strange little mustache, and a few key players who would have conflicted with the central premise and come undone otherwise.

Anyhow, this tale takes place in Egypt. Poirot is on a holiday and while acknowledging the beauty of the Pyramids and having his favorite Jaffa cakes, stumbles onto his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). The duo gust over their previous outing in hush tones (almost as if Sherlock and Dr. Watson were having a Tête-à-tête) before getting introduced to the rich socialite Linnet Doyle Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) who is on her honeymoon with her husband Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer).

Linnet wants to commission Poirot to put her old friend and Simon’s ex-fiancee Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) in her place. The woman has been stalking them ever since Simon broke up with her, and Linnet is not able to take her aggressive nature anymore. Poirot, respectfully rejects her offer because no crime has yet been committed, but agrees to tag along with their holiday as he is smitten by Blues singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo). After unsuccessfully dissuading Jacqueline’s hounding presence, Simon decides to take the party elsewhere.

The recently married couple get aboard on their party cruise ‘Karnak’ with a host of other members that includes Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Benning), Linnet’s maid Louise (Rose Leslie), Linnet’s distant cousin & lawyer Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), Linnet’s ex Dr. Windlesham (Russel Brand), Salome’s daughter Rosalie (Letitia Wright) and the tightly knit duo of Marie (Jennifer Saunders) & Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French). All of them are near and dear ones, but Linnet confesses to Poirot that she doesn’t trust a single one of them. Making them all feel like 2 faced snakes that can hound on her and her wealth anytime.

Now, “Death on the Nile” follows all the basic steps you can find in a whodunit. A murder takes place and then we, along with the detective in question, are forced to question each of the suspects. Basically, this is a game of deception helmed by someone who adores the source material. The only thing that makes this any better than “Murder on the Orient Express” is how well it mends the way to the final reveal.

Branagh gives Hercule Poirot a slight upper hand here. All through the murder mystery, we see Poirot being questioned for being the obvious smarter one in the room. This is why, when he fails to catch the culprit the first few instances – raising the stakes higher, the viewer is bound to get invested. Secondly, this interaction of Poirot sits right in the middle of a group of people who are madly, passionately, and chaotically involved in the business of love. Poirot, who has covertly announced a mask that protects him from getting involved with anyone, is visibly caught in the crossfire as his mask slowly slips.

Most importantly, the mystery in “Death on the Nile” allows its characters to become people who, we as an audience, are more aware of. I mean, they still feel like stick figures with only pronounced character traits, their motifs and involvement in the central premise feel more palpable. The hammy nature of the acting also quietly takes a back seat and these people feel less annoying than their predecessors. Adding to that, instead of a twisted motive that “Murder of the Orient Express” so sparsely carried on its shoulders, “Death on the Nile” takes moral dilemma and the issues of the heart as its standpoint.

However, this isn’t a film without its flaws. It has some really patchy and horrible CGI, an array of middling and uninteresting sequences that don’t add anything to the mystery, the odd camera swirls each time Poirot speculates one of the characters as the culprit and an obsession with the source itself. While the film works as a homage, the obsessive gaze and campy nature of its writer’s more bourgeois lifestyle cannot be rectified by Branagh’s failed attempt to diversify it.

But that is not some of the concerns a casual viewer who buys a ticket to the film would look into. From the standout of a person who is looking for a good time, “Death on the Nile” is a mildly satisfying murder mystery that is a forthy good time at the movies.

Rating: 2.5/5

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