Kenneth Branagh‘s first Agatha Christie adaptation, Murder in the Orient Express, was a modest success (worldwide gross total of over $350mil million against a production budget of $55mil), so it’s no surprise that the sequel got green-lit soon after. Well, this movie was supposed to come out in 2019, but then filming issues, then Covid and the Armie Hammer debacle kept getting it delayed until now.
I’m not going to ignore elephant in the room when reviewing this movie, so let me just say that Hammer’s casting is the least of this film’s problems. The film is more of an ensemble piece with Branagh’s Poirot as the lead. In fact, this adaptation even gives the Belgian sleuth’s enormous mustache an origin story. Yep, it opens with a black/white WWI sequence in No Man’s Land, which seems kind of out of place that it made me think I had gone to the wrong screening.
The serious tone of the opening switches to a rather light-hearted one as Poirot visits a London club in the 1930s where he meets the major players that would later be on board the glamorous S.S. Karnak ship. Armie Hammer‘s Simon and Emma Mackey‘s Jacqueline make for a passionate couple as the two practically ‘make love’ with each other on the dance floor. That is until Gal Gadot‘s Linnet enter the picture that changes the dynamic almost instantly. Fast forward six months later, Linnet and Simon have been married and on their honeymoon, but just before that, Linnet hires Poirot as she fears Jacqueline is stalking her.
Now, there’s something so inherently beguiling with setting a mystery thriller on a train that just isn’t there on a boat. This river steamer is luxurious to be sure, but it lacks a certain mystique and charm. Despite the $90mil budget, the supposedly glorious Egyptian desert vista, complete with the towering pyramids at Giza largely feels inauthentic with subpar CGI. It doesn’t help that Hammer & Gadot as the couple which the plot hinges on, barely has any chemistry at all. It further proves that the best looking couple don’t always translate to sexy onscreen romance, though they’re not the only pair of lovers who lack believability. Speaking of, the accents are all over the place and inconsistent. Annette Bening going in and out of American and British accent is just baffling, while Rose Leslie’s French accent is actually quite convincing (at least to me).
Let’s talk about the casting, which on the whole is not quite as impressive as Branagh’s first Christie’s adaptation. Armie Hammer plays a douchey character convincingly, which feels quite creepy given all the sexual misconduct accusations against him. To be fair, he’s actually more versatile than people give him credit for, I just don’t find him all that charismatic despite his good looks. The same goes for Gal Gadot, she looks stunning as always, but overall not all that memorable.
The supportive players shine brighter here than the leads, notably Tom Bateman as Bouc, the only other returning character besides Poirot. I wish the talented and charming Brit is cast in more movies, his scenes here are the most emotional of the whole film. I enjoy the performances of Sophie Okonedo as an alluring blues singer Salome and Letitia Wright as her strong-headed niece, Rosalie. They’re two of the wisest of the bunch who actually have something Poirot can learn from, and Wright even delivered a memorable, empowering speech that seems in tune with the times.
I remember seeing Ali Fazal in Victoria & Abdul with Judi Dench a few years back, and the dapper Indian actor is definitely ready for his close-up. So is the ravishing Emma Mackey who I first saw in Sex Education series. Her strong resemblance Margot Robbie can be quite distracting but she’s definitely got a magnetic screen presence. Russell Brand is quite a pleasant surprise here playing against type as a benevolent doctor, it’s perhaps his most subdued performance I’ve seen to date. Not all the casting work brilliantly however. As a fan of Absolutely Fabulous and The Vicar of Dibley, naturally I enjoy seeing the lovely comedy duo Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. Alas, Branagh didn’t exactly capitalize on their comic talents, so in the end I feel like those two are miscast.
The lavish costumes and beautiful set pieces are nice to look at, but all the razzle dazzle can’t conceal a slapdash direction, a far cry from Branagh’s marvelous work of his personal drama Belfast. Even Branagh himself didn’t really give himself much to do as this Poirot doesn’t seem all that excited to be in this adventure. The only time his eyes light up is when he converses with Salome, which is more playful than her niece’s half-baked romance with her secret lover.
The best whodunnit thrillers have the key ingredients of being mysterious, suspenseful and captivating. Some of my favorite of late are Ordeal by Innocence limited series (also based on Christie’s work), as well as Christie-esque ones like Only Murders in the Building and Knives Out, which have a strong dose of humor to go with its sleuthing. Well, this Poirot adventure lacks any of those elements, in fact there isn’t much detective work going on until well into the third act. The resolution seems far too convenient and rushed, and by then I was ready to get off this luxury steamer that moves sluggishly like an overcrowded pontoon.
Have you seen the latest adaptation of ‘Death on the Nile’? Well, what did you think?