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Armie Hammer as Simon Doyle, Gal Gadot as Linnet Ridgeway and director Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile, based on the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie.Rob Youngson/Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

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Death on the Nile

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Written by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer

Classification PG; 127 minutes

Opens in theatres Feb. 11

There are a few mysteries at the heart of Death on the Nile, director-star Kenneth Branagh’s second glossy Hercule Poirot adaptation after 2017′s Murder on the Orient Express.

The central one is, obviously, who killed [redacted] aboard a luxury Egyptian river cruise where everyone aboard is a suspect, a mystery that only master Belgian detective Poirot (Branagh) can solve. The eventual answer satisfies nicely, but only if you haven’t read or don’t recall the ending to Agatha Christie’s original work, or its half-dozen previous adaptations.

But there are a few more unexpected puzzles hiding within the margins of this new film, included but not limited to: Why has Branagh adapted Christie’s book while doing the bare minimum to update or recontextualize her work for contemporary audiences? Why did the director decide to not shoot the film in Egypt, but instead subject audiences to site-specific recreations that lack any texture, weight or aesthetic purpose? Who told screenwriter Michael Green to spend more than an hour of screen-time before getting to the titular murder? Who could have foreseen that so many of the film’s co-stars – Armie Hammer, Gal Gadot, Letitia Wright, Russell Brand – would each become their own unique sort of, um, problematic headline-makers between the time of production in 2019 and its COVID-delayed release? Oh, and why is Poirot’s epic mustache so magnificently manicured?

Death on the Nile doesn’t provide answers to the above – with the exception of Poirot’s facial hair, which gets its very own origin story! – resulting in a murder-mystery that is only deathly in its relative dullness. Shot like a television movie (or do we call these Netflix movies now?), performed with half-hearted enthusiasm by nearly everyone in the cast (with one excellent exception, who I’ll get to in a minute) and paced with a perhaps intentionally ironic lazy-river urgency, Branagh’s film ultimately lands as a big, fat, expensive exercise in shoulder-shrugging.

Except, and I guess this half-answers one of the questions above: Branagh does a particularly great job at directing himself.

Branagh does a particularly great job at directing himself.Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

More prickly than David Suchet and more mischievous than Peter Ustinov, Branagh plays Poirot as a tremendously fun nuisance, embracing the character’s cleverer-than-thou righteousness with glee. Whenever Branagh puts himself at the centre of the action, Death on the Nile clicks well enough to justify the whole act of big-budget copy-pasting. Not so much when the action turns to anyone else, especially a lifeless Gadot, who here plays a wealthy heiress seemingly only as a test-run for her eventual starring turn as Cleopatra.

So: Branagh makes a killing, while leaving his cast dead in the water. Case closed.

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