Truthfully, the adaptions of Agatha Christie’s work should be a gold mine for directors looking to get a foot on the ladder. They should not be a bright ensemble taking control of good prose but an example of how and why simple tropes still appeal to an audience. Kenneth Branagh’s starring role and work behind the camera as director of this latest Death on the Nile adaptation will continue on his trend of fascinatingly acceptable features. He can neither leap to greatness nor sink to degeneracy and in that mediocrity comes a seething resentment for a man doing just fine. A second turn for the man as Hercule Poirot beckons not how to solve this latest case, but why it needs presenting in this manner.
Considering the grim and underlying effects of world warfare that pins Death on the Nile as a period piece of low morale and tough times, it is hard to swallow the notion that pratting about on a river solving a primed and ready Cluedo piece is all that engaging. A backstory for Poirot this may be, but it appears Branagh wants to give producers the nudge that he can direct warfare with poignancy and stronger meaning. For all the clues found in this ensemble, Branagh hopes the real mystery wraps around Poirot himself. To do so is with earnest intent. Offer a staple character of literary fiction backstory audiences never knew they needed. What Branagh may not have counted on is that they may not have wanted it either.
Because for all the twists and turns Death on the Nile can take, it does not have the effective direction necessary to string together a murder mystery. Branagh and this ensemble make it palatable and lightly entertaining but the remastering of this classic never envisions much beyond relatively safe choices and underwhelming riposte to the modern workings of adapting old fiction. Tom Bateman’s supporting role feels relatively obnoxious, Gal Gadot’s inclusion is as light and unengaging as expected and Armie Hammer presents the doe-eyed nonsense only he and a large net of others can provide on a whim. Annette Bening has some fun with her role, but the unavoidable downside of Death on the Nile comes not from forgettable casting but from the lack of atmosphere. Sound stages that replicate rivers and rough beauty, it feels almost claustrophobic in the shot-reverse-shot static that makes up most of this feature.
For all its faults, at least Murder on the Orient Express had a unique charm to it. Its ensemble was far more interesting, its protagonist utilising the benefit of being a breath of fresh air to audiences and its camerawork spotty but memorable. It was Branagh engaging with a potentially new style and a sincere interest was shown. Not in Death on the Nile. That seems to have ebbed away. He has spent his creativity on Belfast and had little energy left over to churn out a sequel to a vaguely successful adaptation of Christie from a handful of years ago. Death on the Nile and its predecessor are features that will have no stake in the favourites game but will provide absolute and immediately forgettable structures of a safe and satisfactory nature. No more, no less. It doesn’t take a detective to work that one out.