Kenneth Branagh returns as Agatha Christie’s super sleuth Hercule Poirot in “Death on the Nile” and it’s a far smoother ride than he provided with the Orient Express.
“Nile” immediately hooks us with Poirot’s visit to a 1937 London blues bar. While watching some dirty dancing doled out by fiancées Jacqueline (Emma Mackey) and Simon (Armie Hammer), things get unintentionally dirtier when Jacqueline’s ultra-wealthy/beautiful best friend Linnet (Gal Gadot) pops into the club to meet the couple. Jacqueline asks Linnet to give Simon a job, which Linnet does, and Simon accepts by taking Linnet onto the dance floor. As Jacqueline watches them dance, her jealous look relays the betrayal about to come.
As fate would have it, Poirot travels to Egypt six months later and runs into old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) who happens to be there attending a wedding reception. Bouc takes Poirot with him as his guest and the newlyweds wind up being Simon and Linnet. Poirot recognizes the couple from the club and also the jilted Jacqueline, who roams among the guests uninvited. Jacqueline’s stalking fills Linnet with unease and Simon with embarrassment. Linnet, knowing Poirot’s prowess, asks for assistance in getting rid of Jacqueline. While Poirot is powerless since Jacqueline’s ‘gaslighting’ is not a crime, Jacqueline’s unwelcome appearances equal a bad omen for Linnet.
Chartering a luxury steamboat for her guests, Linnet treats them to a tour of the River Nile. After avoiding a near-fatal accident at a stop among the stone temples, Linnet boards the boat to find Jacqueline and confirms her fear: Jacqueline’s the black cloud Linnet’s got to outrun. As Linnet plans her escape with Simon, Jacqueline’s anger comes to a head. While Jacqueline violently confronts her ex-fiancée Simon with a .22 pistol, the same caliber weapon is used to kill Linnet at seemingly the same time. Whodunit? Poirot will soon know.
What’s good about Branagh’s “Nile” is he’s assembled a strong supporting cast where everyone’s a plausible perpetrator. Equally strong is how Branagh weaves the theme of love into the story without getting overbearing. Every suspect winds up representing an aspect of love that, in Branagh’s world, could be a killer. Could Linnet’s murderer be Bouc who, while having an interracial affair with Rosalie (Letitia Wright), would kill for the cash to get away from disapproving mom Euphemia (Annette Bening)? Or are Bowers and Marie (Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders), the secreted lesbian couple, responsible for retribution in Linnet’s bad business dealings? Or is it Linnet’s friend/former fiancée Windlesham (Russell Brand) who never fell out of love with Linnet? Be it lost, unrequited, betrayed or forbidden, the way Branagh addresses the angry side of love and weaves it into the mystery gives “Nile” an unexpected oompf. Opening on Valentine’s Day weekend may be an ironic twist but, just as Christie’s twists confirm, love is murder.