Death on the Nile

Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express brought back the vibe of those all-star murder mysteries that were popular in the 1970s. He made it work, finding just the right combination of actors and choosing to adapt an Agatha Christie novel that offered plenty of cinematic possibilities. The movie was fun, as well as a surprise box office hit. Branagh returns to the director's chair – and reprises his role as master detective Hercule Poirot – in Death on the Nile. It also has a cast of stars and a setting that seems perfect for getting big-screen treatment. This sequel unfortunately lacks the magic that made the previous movie so enjoyable.

Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) is a very wealthy woman. She betrays her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) by stealing and marrying her boyfriend Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) mere weeks after they are introduced. Linnet and Simon stage a lavish honeymoon celebration, complete with guests. Although not invited, Jacqueline keeps stalking around, causing Linnet to believe that she might be prone to violence. Simon gets the idea to move their party, including Poirot, onto a cruise ship to sail around the Nile. Once on board, a nervous Linnet confesses to the detective that she doesn't anybody in their group.

That's because everyone is a little shady in their own way, or has some desire to get their hands on her wealth. They include Andrew (Ali Fazal), the lawyer who manages her money; her heartbroken former fiancee Linus (Russell Brand); old school friend Rosalie (Leticia Wright), who now acts as the business manager to jazz singer aunt Salome (Sophie Okenedo); Poirot's friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his artist mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), who doesn't approve of her son dating Rosalie; and Linnet's Communist godmother Marie (Jennifer Saunders).

Part of why Death on the Nile doesn't have a lot of snap is that it takes a full hour before the murder at the heart of this mystery occurs. That means the entire first half is spent trying to establish who all of these characters are and to lay the groundwork for things that will become clues later on. Even with those sixty minutes to spare, the movie struggles to make its characters more than one-dimensional. There are so many of them that giving everyone their proper due is impossible.

Rian Johnson's recent Knives Out, which was also a throwback to those all-star mysteries, had a script intelligent enough to develop its characters while the investigation was going on. We came to know them through the detective's efforts. Death on the Nile tries, and fails, to get us to know them prior to the murder, leading to a logjam. Many of the potential motivations these people have to commit murder are just as thin as the characterizations.

The film is best when it focuses on Poirot. Branagh is visibly relishing the chance to play this master detective, and his performance is thoroughly enjoyable. (Armie Hammer, meanwhile, overacts badly, and Russell Brand is embarrassingly miscast as a contemplative doctor.) Admittedly, the pace does pick up in the last half-hour, as Poirot makes his revelations. Everything culminates with the requisite scene in which he gathers all the suspects in the same room, methodically laying out what happened before fingering the culprit. This concluding section has the fun and energy that's missing from the bulk of the movie.

Death on the Nile looks great, effectively using Egypt as a luxurious backdrop for all the seedy events that take place on the ship. A murder mystery is supposed to crackle, though. We're supposed to be on the edge of our seats, eagerly awaiting each new clue. Not even Branagh's terrific work as Poirot can give this movie the spark needed to compensate for a dull screenplay and mostly flat characters.

out of four

Death on the Nile is rated PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, and sexual material. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.