Death on the Nile: The Cost of Love, by Tyler Smith
Few movie genres are more breezily reliable as the whodunit. Like any other genre, the story and character elements are dutifully assembled, then systematically explored, leading to a payoff that is satisfying yet essentially arbitrary. None of this is a complaint, of course. Most of the pleasure of any genre movie is being able to sit back and allow the components to fall into place, appreciating the subtle variations but ultimately embracing the familiarities. The facile nature of the whodunit is actually a little perverse, in that dark and disturbing elements are not only expected but enthusiastically accepted by the audience. After all, without a murder, there is no mystery. As a result, victims are often stripped of their humanity, reduced to a two-dimensional plot device at best and a knowing punchline at worst (perfectly crystallized in the board game Clue, whose victim is simply called “Mr. Boddy”). In his new film Death on the Nile, director Kenneth Branagh attempts to indulge in the pleasures of the traditional whodunit while fully realizing those involved as real, flesh-and-blood characters that we care about beyond merely their roles in the story. He is mostly successful, resulting in a lavish production with a deep sense of mournfulness. The film may not be as fun as one might expect, but it is perhaps more engaging than your standard boilerplate whodunit.
In a lengthy introduction, Branagh introduces us to the film’s key players, including a wealthy socialite (Gal Gadot), her dashing beau (Armie Hammer), and his jilted lover (Emma Mackey). The three of them end up taking a pleasure cruise down the Nile River, along with several supposed well-wishers. Branagh takes his precious time – some viewers might say too much – allowing us to get to know these characters so that when the inevitable murder does occur, it is a jarring and emotional story beat. Indeed, it plays out in such a way as to make us wish that it hadn’t happened at all, flying in the face of genre expectations. And so when eccentric detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) goes about solving the case, we are more than simply curious; we actually want to see justice served.
To allow the story enough breathing room to acquire real emotional heft is a risky move, especially in a genre whose story beats are so predictable that efficiency is often valued above all. But it is a choice that largely pays off, as it brings the thematic motifs out into the open. Just as grief, vengeance, and justice played a big role in Branagh’s previous Poirot film, Murder on the Orient Express, here the consistent refrain is that of love and what we are willing to do to find it (and, more pointedly, hold onto it). This exploration of the cost of love gives a melodramatic and tragic quality to the proceedings, as each character – including Poirot himself – is shown to be in some state of heartbreak or longing.
This isn’t to suggest that the film is a dour slog. It contains all of the comforts of the genre, beautifully realized in its stunning art direction and gorgeous cinematography. The opulence of the ship and the iconic imagery of the Nile serve to transport us into a world about which most of us can only ever dream. But as we’ve seen from countless other whodunits, this depiction of privilege serves primarily as an effective backdrop for grisly brutal acts, suggesting that wealth as a shield can only provide so much safety.
This unusually balanced approach to the material requires the film’s talented cast to hold back from ever becoming too archetypal. Certainly, several of the supporting characters are allowed to be colorful, but the theme of love is so ingrained in the story that it reaches far enough to affect even them. The performances here are uniformly strong, with Branagh’s melancholy Poirot and Gadot’s distant Linnet Ridgeway leading the pack. Special mention should be made, however, of Sophie Okonedo, who plays sultry lounge singer Salome Otterbourne. Not only are her musical performances effectively heightened, but her knowing, world-weary exchanges with our brilliant detective make for such a fun cat-and-mouse dynamic that it at times seems almost flirtatious.
By the end of Death on the Nile, we have gotten to the bottom of the murder, but the expected satisfaction of knowing the truth is tempered by a very palpable sense of mourning. Poirot attempts to comfort the bereaved but realizes – as we do – that the grieving process has only begun and will never truly end. That basic fact, the possibility of loss, is the true cost of love. But, the film suggests, it is a price worth paying. That a whodunit can so effectively explore this concept while still hitting standard story beats is a true artistic achievement and one that serves to reinvigorate the genre.