“DEATH ON THE NILE”
“DEATH ON THE NILE”
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Rose Leslie, Jennifer Saunders
Written by Michael Green
Based on the novel “Death on the Nile” by Agatha Christie
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Produced by Kenneth Branagh, Ridley Scott, Judy Hoffland, Kevin J. Walsh, Mark Gordon, Simon Kinberg
Executive Producers: Matthew Jenkins, James Pritchard and Matthew Pritchard
Cinematography by Harris Zambarloukos
Edited by Una Ni Dhonghaile
Music by Patrick Doyle
Production Designer: Jim Clay
Review by Matt Neufeld
Lawdy mamma, what an incredible week for Kenneth Branagh, this week of Feb. 6 through 12, 2022! First, on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, Branagh’s excellent 2021 film “Belfast” was rightly, deservedly, nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture (Branagh co-produced), Best Director (Branagh directed) and Best Original Screenplay (Branagh wrote the film). And if there’s any justice, “Belfast” will win all three awards, as the film should win them. Second, just three days later, on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, Branagh’s also-excellent, beautifully-executed, wonderfully-directed, extravagantly-produced, insightfully- and smartly-written and finely-acted film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic “Death on the Nile” is scheduled to be released nationwide. If there’s any justice, “Nile” will not only rule the weekend box office, but also go on to be the huge popular and critical success that this film deserves to be!
It’s so much fun to watch such a smart, talented and, yes, brilliant even, director, writer, actor and producer such as Kenneth Branagh continually just work at the very top of his game. And it’s a wonder, and equally enjoyable, to see Branagh create one of the best films of 2021 and 2020–“Belfast”–and create what is a sure bet to be one of the best films of, at least, the first half of 2022–“Death on the Nile”–and create one of the most popular hits of 2017, Branagh’s smash adaption of Christie’s classic “Murder on the Orient Express.”
When you’re hot, you’re hot.
And, man, is Branagh on fire.
“Death on the Nile,” as noted, is indeed excellent on every filmic level–production, direction, writing, acting, as well as every individual part of these major, overall areas–but the film is notable, and praiseworthy, for several other reasons, too.
First, “Nile” marks one of the few occasions when a film remake is actually notably excellent, stands on its own, is not just a lame ripoff, brings something new, is even original in several ways, and, in some ways, actually improves on its previous film version, and not just regarding improved and updated special effects. Yes, Branagh’s “Death on the Nile” is that rare remake that is above-average, highly-recommended and actually worth seeing in a real movie theater, up on a real movie screen–and, these days, that’s a major cause for filmic celebration.
Second, perceptive and clever “Nile” screenwriter Michael Green, who also wrote the 2017 film version of “Express,” which Branagh also directed, does something quite extraordinary and impressive with his screenplay of “Nile:” he thoroughly, emotionally, deeply and even, yes, lovingly makes main character and master detective Hercule Poirot far, far more than just a brilliant detective. Green makes Poirot a very real, touching, multi-layered, complex, caring, dramatic person, or, you know, a real human being. Green personalizes Poirot with such intelligence, complexity and emotion, Poirot is presented as someone we care about not just in terms of whether he can solve the seemingly-unsolvable mystery at hand, but also as someone who also has the same damn and damning life experiences, problems and complexities as everyone else, including those rascals, rats, cretins, roustabouts, scallywags, thieves and murderers who Poirot is trying to figure out, finger and find out about.
Thus, among the various intriguing goings-on of the wider, core murder mystery, we also have some real character development occurring with the very lead character who’s tasked with solving that murder mystery. If only more film murder mysteries gave their lead detectives such depth, well, there’d be more better film murder mysteries.
In “Nile,” with Poirot presented in such a humanistic, personable and relatable manner, the film as a whole wholly transcends the usual formulaic confines of your normal, regular whodunit mystery suspense thriller and, thus, the movie is elevated to a higher, and better, level, increasing the quality and fun of the murderous, mysterious proceedings. When the viewer truly cares for and about the main protagonist on such a higher level, the enjoyment and appreciation of the concurrent, attendant mystery is deepened–and heightened!
But make no mistake –and don’t worry–Branagh’s “Death on the Nile” is indeed continually, consistently and thoroughly entertaining, and the film is still a hoot and a holler of a fun, keep-’em-guessing, unpredictable whodunit murder mystery suspense thriller.
Branagh directs this classic murder mystery like the classic director that he is, filling the screen with a director’s bag-of-tricks array of clever camera angles, viewpoints, swoops, swishes and movements that keeps the story and movie moving at an exhilarating pace–but not too fast. Branagh knows that he has to direct with energy, ingenuity and smarts because a murder mystery, while containing some action-oriented sequences, is still, at it’s core, a dialogue- and talk-oriented story, and movie. But Branagh handles his camera, angles, shots, blocking, timing, pacing and editing masterfully, and this is one murder mystery whodunit that never slows down, never stalls, is never stagnant or boring, and is completely engrossing from start to finish.
Alas, the same can’t be said for too many similar film murder mysteries. Too many of these films in this genre–no matter what era–tend to get bogged down in their own stuffy air and airs of too much static talk and not enough action, fluid direction, decent timing and pacing, and interesting camera work. Fortunately, Branagh, as noted, knows what he’s doing and he knows how to make movies entertaining, and he overcomes these familiar obstacles. “Death on the Nile” is so well-directed by Branagh, the viewer actually enjoys the familiar elements of the murder mystery genre, and is enjoyably drawn into the story, and the movie, as they rightfully should be.
But besides his confident direction, Branagh knows he has to direct his huge ensemble of A-list, talented actors well, too, keeping these characters–and the actors–from devolving into trite, cliched, stock formula murder mystery elements, too. Fortunately, Branagh, his producers and his savvy casting agents have gathered a most talented, capable and enjoyable all-star cast to bring the literal boatload of characters to rich, layered and interesting life.
There’s scores of actors playing the long list of characters who board a beautiful, gleaming, shiny luxury boat for a wedding and honeymoon celebratory cruise in “Nile,” and there’s not a weak performance in the cast–all of whom seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. It should be fun, after all, to play a character in a murder mystery. To act throughout a film’s three acts without really letting the audience know if you’re the one, or an accomplice, or a witness, or a silent partner–or innocent–is just plain fun. To hide your background, actions, intents and even purposes in the plot involves conveying several layers of acting abilities–and the cast of “Nile” pulls it all off with the required, attendant sense of glee, fun and mystery. As it should be, if you haven’t already read or seen Christie’s “Nile,” you’ll have absolutely no idea who did what to whom, or when, or why.
Besides Branagh’s bravuro, boffo lead performance as the brilliant Belgium detective Hercule Poirot–and Branagh as Poirot does believably and ably carry the film–four other lead actors also carry the film. The ravishing, sexy, stunningly beautiful Gal Gadot; a strong, confident Armie Hammer; a dazzingly and equally sexy and beautiful Emma Mackey; and a touching, emotional and vulnerable Tom Bateman are great in their roles. All perform exceptionally. And it’s a credit to these actors, and, again, the rest of the cast, that none of them gives anything away.
It’s never wise to give too much away regarding the plot of a murder mystery–even the most basic plot points. Even in a film review. The essence of “Nile” involves a group of friends who are invited on that aforementioned luxury cruise down the Nike during a faraway, more glamorous and luxurious time, set sometime during what could be the late 1930s or early 1940s. They are all there onboard to celebrate a couple’s marriage and honeymoon. Alas, this is a murder mystery, and someone is murdered. Poirot has been invited on the cruise as part of a vacation, and he is soon tasked with finding the killer. That’s all anyone really needs to know about the plot. It’s more fun to find out who is who, what is what, who knows who or whom, and why so-and-so does this or that while watching the movie in a movie theater. And, again, that’s how this movie should be seen–in a real movie theater.
Adding to the quality of everything else, the production design, set design, art direction, costumes, hair, make-up, lighting and cinematography are exquisite throughout “Death on the Nile.” The film just looks and feels gorgeous–classy, stylish, fancy, extravagant and eloquent, but all the while pulling this off without being snobby, snotty, off-putting, class-conscious or too blue blood to be alienating or overly snooty. Sometimes, it’s just nice to sit back and watch a movie that’s just plain beautiful to not just enjoy, but look at, too. “Nile” is a beautiful-looking film to behold.
Kudos to Branagh and his cast and crew, again, for the overall general quality of this version of “Death on the Nile.” They certainly had some prior competition to deal with. Agatha Christie’s original novel was first published in 1937–that’s nineteen thirty-seven. There was a stage play, adapted by Christie herself, which opened in 1944, with the name “Hidden Horizon.” There was a live television version of the book, called “Murder on the Nile,” which aired in 1950. Then, there is the 1978 film version, directed by John Guillerman, adapted by Anthony Shaffer and starring the late great Peter Ustinov as Poirot. And–are you ready–the 1978 film version stars Jane Birkin, Lois Chiles, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Simon MacCorkindale, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Jack Warden and I. S. Johar. Whew.
Filmic lightning has struck twice for Kenneth Branagh, Michael Green and their casts and crews with their early-twenty-first-century adaptations of classic Agatha Christie murder mysteries. And, yes, believe it or not, we should all actually wish and hope that Branagh, Green and their casts and crews will descend once more into the fray of the Christie catalogue and, yes, make another Christie film adaptation. Lightning can indeed strike a third time with these filmic warriors working in the writing, acting, producing and directing chairs.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.