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Movie review: 'Death on the Nile' cracks compelling new case

1/5
Kenneth Branagh returns as Hercule Poirot. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios
Kenneth Branagh returns as Hercule Poirot. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Death on the Nile, the second in Kenneth Branagh's Agatha Christie series, is even better than his Murder on the Orient Express. The film presents a more engaging mystery, with some extra fun twists along the way.

Hercule Poirot (Branagh) meets Linett Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) in a London club in 1937. Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) performs in that club, and her sister, Rosalie (Letitia Wright), makes sure she gets paid.

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Linett's friend, Jackie (Emma Mackey), is newly in love with Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), and they can't keep their hands off each other. Six weeks later, on vacation in Egypt, Poirot encounters all of these characters again. This time, Linett has stolen Simon away from Jackie, who keeps showing up to stalk them.

All the characters get on a boat to sail down the Nile. Euphemia (Annette Bening), Louise (Rose Leslie), Katchadourian (Ali Fazal), Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders), Bowers (Dawn French), Dr. Windlesham (Russell Brand) and Poirot's friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman), also are on board.

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The murder happens rather late in the trip. Death on the Nile spends more time building motives and suspicions among the cast.

Once the murder occurs, the prime suspect has the perfect alibi, but the murder weapon is unaccounted for. Once again, the mystery becomes a series of interviews, this time on a boat instead of a train.

Poirot has reason to suspect everyone. When the crew finds more evidence by trawling the river floor, each item changes his theory. Some suspects get ruled out by being murdered.

Branagh, as director and portraying Poirot, really builds the tension as he pulls information out of resistant people. Michael Green's script gives the A-list cast mouthfuls of dialogue to devour.

Death on the Nile delves a bit into Poirot's character, so he's not just the quirky sleuth. It's only superficial, but it's sincere enough that it need not go much further.

The film opens with a flashback to Poirot in World War I, including a de-aged Branagh. The crime in Egypt reminds Poirot of a lover he had during the war, and the film reveals later why they're not still together. Poirot's obsessive compulsions pay off in macabre touches with dead bodies.

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Branagh also captures the handsy passion of youthful infatuation. After Simon leaves Jackie, he picks up with Linett without missing a beat. They dance with overtly sexual moves, and steal off to hidden corners of Egyptian monuments for some heavy petting.

If it sounds base and immature, that's the point. These are immature, passionate, impetuous lovers, and their volatility leads to crime. It also captures the palpable feeling of infatuation, and it's contagious.

Since Branagh shot Death on the Nile on 70mm film, and it screened for press in that format, the film stands out from contemporary digital blockbusters. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos captures the golden sun on Egyptian monuments and the cast's faces, and moves dynamically above and below water.

Death on the Nile proves Branagh's Poirot franchise has legs. Hopefully, its new owner, Disney, sees the potential to make more -- there are many more Christie novels from which to choose. Perhaps the next one can be one that hasn't been adapted before.

Death on the Nile is in theaters Feb. 11.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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