Movie Review: An almost-fun ill-fated voyage, “Death on the Nile”

So many things have gone wrong since “Death on the Nile” was announced, cast and put in the can.

There was a pandemic that stopped the world in its tracks. Co-star Armie Hammer had his #MeToo moment, a meltdown that imperils what’s left of his career. And Disney bought out Fox, relegating the picture to a “whatever” release strategy.

It’s no wonder “Death,” the latest film of Agatha Christie’s novel and the second adaptation helmed by and starring Sir Kenneth Branagh, has a dispiriting hint of “Oh, that’ll do” about it.

It’s not nearly as much fun as “Murder on the Orient Express,” even as the production values — the set design and Hollywood trickery involved in recreating a late 1930s steamer excursion up the Nile — dazzle, the cast impresses (at least on paper) and the Christie plot bears up beautifully under the strain.

There’s a playfulness and modernization to that casting that pays off. Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo plays a world-weary blues singer along for the odyssey, a woman whose sexy guitar-playing and singing — dubbed in tunes by Sister Rosette Tharpe — leave the Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Branagh) blushing and a tad flabbergasted. The real Tharpe came along just after the film’s time-setting, but as the film’s opening scene puts poison gas on the World War I battlefield, and deployed by the Belgians whom the younger Poirot is serving with, a year before the Germans unleashed that horror on the world, we’re reminded this isn’t meant to be taken terribly seriously.

But there’s still something bordering on sublime in this sequel, with its dinner jackets and evening gowns, Poirot (WWI) back story, oversexed jitterbugging to birth-of-rock blues that wouldn’t exist for a decade, sexy sirens and femme fatales and murders most foul, all in the name of money.

Gal Gadot is Linette, the “Golden Girl” heiress whose first trip to a nightclub dance floor allows her to steal Simon, the fiance (Hammer) of her “best friend,” the somewhat less rich but romantically ravenous Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). Poirot witnesses all, and renders words of warning.

“Ah love, it is not safe.”

It is the wedding party of Linette and Simon, seeking to shake stalker Jacqueline, that books this luxe steamboat passage up the Nile, with Poirot a late add-on guest. Other relatives and friends are played by Russell Brand, as a doctor, Oscar-winner Annette Bening, Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”) as the niece of our invited-entertainment, blues singer Salome (Okonedo), and a reunion of the former comic duo Dawn French (“The Vicar of Dibley”) and Jennifer Saunders (“Absolutely Fabulous”).

“Death on the Nile” is a movie of immaculate compositions, flawless model and digital effects, and juicy observations on love and money.

And we learn more about our mysterious and famous hero. We’ve seen the WWI affair that left Poirot single, in need of his elaborate mustache, now a bachelor who loses himself in tiny, exquisite desserts.

“Love fever,” he laments. “I was sick with it once. It left me enough regrets to last a lifetime.”

Salome is similarly jaded. “I’ve had a handful of husbands, each one of’em a handful.”

But after a near miss at some famous ruins, a second murder attempt at one of the passengers succeeds. There’s a body on board, and a murderer amongst us. Poirot, invited to more or less prevent this sort of thing, must figure out who it is, and as others are knocked off before they dock (the crew is largely removed from this story) the survivors wonder if the Belgian case-cracker is all he’s cracked up to be.

Besides, every fresh body or injury reduces the field of suspects, making his deductions easier, right?

I love Branagh in this part and I liked this movie. Some of the tinkering with the plot — anachronistic as it is — adds surprises, even if you’ve seen the earlier big screen version of this, from 1978, that’s making the rounds on many streaming services these days.

And yet for all its costumed, beautifully-decorated luxury and star-glossed sheen, “Nile” is a letdown from Branagh’s take on “Orient Express.” He casts funny people like French and Saunders and Brand, and there’s nothing funny, pithy or witty for them to say or do.

The script is as arid as the desert just beyond the river’s banks.

Branagh and Gadot’s characters are ably fleshed-out. Bening, Okonedo, Mackey and Wright have enough scenes to make strong impressions. Tom Bateman, as a loud, ever-smiling Poirot pal with a secret lover on board, has far too many. And Hammer’s faithless fiance seems reduced in scope, perhaps thanks to afterthought editing.

There’s little in the way of vituperative envy in the potential villains, little the viewer can invest in as we try to deduct from what we and Poirot observe and take in.

That adds up to a “Death on the Nile” that never lets us forget its quality and attention to detail, but forgets to be much in the way of fun.

Rating: PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, and sexual material

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Annette Bening, Sophie Okonedo, Armie Hammer, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Leticia Wright, Emma Mackey, Russell Brand, Tom Bateman, Alia Fazal and Susannah Fielding.

Credits: Directed by Kenneth Branagh, scripted by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie. A 20th Century release.

Running time: 2:07

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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