Assembling an A-list cast of anti-vaxxers and alleged cannibals, Death On Denial might have been a better name for this woeful whodunnit. Very nearly never released at all after the rolling bad press of almost everyone involved, Kenneth Branagh’s starry sequel to Murder On The Orient Express narrowly avoided a Disney+ burial but still comes out feeling wholly unsuitable for the cinema. It’s over-directed, under-written and embarrassingly acted by everyone except Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
Agatha Christie’s classic Cluedo caper survives mostly intact as Branagh faithfully recreates 1930s Egypt in ugly CG – complete with videogame crocodiles popping out the water to set the scene. Before we get to the mystery though, we get an origin story for Hercule Poirot’s moustache. Returning here to play the world’s most Belgian detective, Branagh digitally de-ages himself for a black and white WWI prologue that shows us how, when and why he has such ridiculous facial hair. Steeping the character in reverence before he’s had a chance to earn it, Branagh recasts Poirot here as a superhero. He’s a man with such paranormal powers of deduction that he can solve any puzzle except his own mind; doomed to live a life of loneliness because of his cursed genius.
Catching up with the detective after the events of the first film (you don’t need to have seen Orient Express to enjoy Death On The Nile, but the sequel will seem so much worse in comparison if you have), we find him eating cake alone in a London jazz club. Playboy Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) is nibbling the neck of Jackie de Bellefort (Sex Education’s Emma Mackey) in a bit of hilariously inappropriate dirty dancing, but he only has eyes for Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot) when she arrives.
Skip forward a few months and we’re at Simon and Linnet’s wedding in Egypt, with a party that includes all the usual Christie suspects. There’s the suspicious looking doctor (Russell Brand), the suspicious looking philanderer (Tom Bateman), his suspicious looking mum (Annette Bening) and a host of other suspicious looking cheekbones, wigs and accents including Letitia Wright, Sophie Okonedo, and the aforementioned French and Saunders. Poirot is there too, of course, but so is the mad-eyed Jackie – walking out of the sea in slow-motion like something out of Ex On The Beach to try and make Simon’s life hell.
Escaping the drama in a luxury river steamer, the wedding guests set off down the Nile and almost instantly run into trouble. At least one person gets killed, and Poirot gets to lock everyone inside and declare that “ze muhderer es inn dis ruum!” For all the money spent on casting, no one bothered to hire a dialect coach – as Branagh’s cheesy accent somehow sounds like the least offensive voice on the boat (that prize definitely goes to Wright). Flashy enough for pantomime but lacking the sense of fun, the rest of the film follows Branagh’s journey into dull excess, with Christie’s cracking whodunnit deafened by the camerawork and deadened by lazy writing.
It’s a testament to the original story that much of the last act feels so solidly entertaining, and that the twists and turns (however obvious) still have the power to lift the curtain with a flourish. Death On The Nile will likely be remembered for all the wrong reasons, but once Knives Out 2 drops later this year (rumoured to be set aboard a cruise ship…) it probably won’t be remembered at all.
- Director: Kenneth Branagh
- Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer
- Release date: February 11