After a lethal trip on the Orient Express, the world’s greatest detective is due a little rest and relaxation in Death on the Nile. After a pandemic and severely unflattering news about one of the key stars, Kenneth Branagh returns for his latest and arguably better run as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. A lavish throwback to luxurious travelog films of old, the production feels big and some interesting changes to the story make for a clever whodunnit. Twentieth Century Studios/Disney brings Death on the Nile to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a pleasing HDR10 transfer, an effective Atmos audio track, and a thin assortment of bonus features. Bumpy but better than the last one - Recommended
Read our Death on the Nile - Blu-ray Review
A simple slate of exotic travel and indulgent cuisine is all that Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) needs. While traveling through Egypt, the world’s greatest detective finds himself at the behest of his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), a special guest of newlyweds Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) for a tour of the Nile aboard the SS Karnak. While they’re enjoying their nuptials with their accompanying wedding party - their romantic light is dimmed by Simon’s spurned former lover Jacqueline (Emma Mackie). After a hysterical outburst, Jacqueline shoots Simon in the leg. The next morning, Linnet is found in her bed murdered and everyone aboard had means, method, and motive. Now it is up to Poirot and his little gray cells to suss out the truth and untangle the web of lies, deceit, and death.
As I’ve covered a number of whodunits for HDD including Christie adaptations of The Mirror Crack’d, Evil Under The Sun, and Branagh’s first outing as Poirot in the 2017 Murder on the Orient Express, I have a deep love for this sort of film. In particular, I love the 1978 Death on the Nile with the ever-excellent Peter Ustinov as Poirot. I knew going into this new take not to expect the same. Branagh’s Orient Express was a warning shot to that effect that he’s going to take Christie’s creations and fiddle and play around and give his own spin. Where I had trouble with his first time out as the mustachioed detective, I found myself pleasantly surprised with what he brought to the table for this new take on Death on the Nile.
A couple more years and a couple of films later, Branagh displays a cooler and more comfortable presence as Poirot. One of my biggest criticisms of his Murder on the Orient Express - and the films he places himself as the lead - he tends to get distracted making the film about himself. It’s the key ingredient in Christie’s works that often the main detectives - Marple or Poirot - are not the main characters of the story. They’re merely observers, and Branagh shows a better hand this time around letting his cast have the bigger flashier moments until all needs to be revealed at the very end.
And this is a hell of a cast! Gal Gadot plays a fine Linnet, it’s a flashy role and it doesn’t stretch her talents, but she plays the attractive heiress well enough. Emma Mackie gets to dig in and play viscous with Jacqueline. Small characters all get moments to shine. I was honestly gobsmacked at how well Russell Brand pulled off such an understated and impressive turn as doctor Windlesham. Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French are brilliantly cast, and I enjoyed the twist they brought for Letitia Wright and Sophie Okonedo as Rosalie and Salome Otterbourne respectively. And then well, there’s the elephant of the room - Armie Hammer as Simon. He’s fine. As an honest observer of films and performances, he’s been in great movies but the movies he’s in aren’t great because of him. It kind of feels like they may have edited around him a little in the interim of his personal life details, but given the story and his central character, you couldn't cut him out and it’d just been weird to CGI Christopher Plummer in there.
Now, as is the case with any Christie adaptation, many changes were made from the source novel - and in my opinion, that’s perfectly okay. Every other adaptation of this book has had to have major changes to make the novel work as a film. The principal change for this film - and the other adaptations - was deleting and condensing the multitude of characters. If left alone we wouldn’t have had only thirteen credited actors on the cover but closer to twenty or more. Another change I appreciated was that everyone knows each other. Instead of being random people who all just so happen to be on the same boat with a reason to kill Linnet, this gives the mystery a little more urgency.
There are also some additional changes to character relationships that give them more edge and in one particular case a more meaningful reason to be together. None of these changes in Michael Green’s screenplay alters the main thrust of the plot or key events. These changes simply add new flavor so if you’ve already read the book or seen the show or other film, you’ve got something new to appreciate.
And at the end of the day, I actually really liked this Death on the Nile and truthfully I didn't expect to. I still hold the 1978 version in higher regard, and I thought the Suchet version was pretty good but flawed in its own ways, but Branagh actually did a good job with this one. It’s a showy big spectacle feature aiming to recapture the grand expensive travelog films of classic Hollywood. There are still some weird choices, Bouc coming back when he’s not in the novel at all along with Mother is a strange subplot that added more filler than needed. The really weird Gadot/Cleopatra moment is still a puzzler beyond re-re-reestablishing that she’s rich as hell. But those are mild nitpicks.
I wish Branagh and his team could shoot on location and use more real-life visuals, some of the CGI scenery is painfully obvious, but this is a meticulously detailed production with incredible sets, and lavish production design, with impressive period costuming. With a third film is apparently in the works and a possible new run of Marple stories, I’m actually excited to see what Branagh does next with future Christie mysteries. The success of this Death on the Nile is that I actually want to see more of Branagh’s take on Poirot captured in 65mm.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Murder gets underway on 4K in Death on the Nile with a two-disc 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray + Blu-ray release from 20th Century Studios/Disney. Housed in a standard black two-disc UHD case with an identical slipcover, the 4K disc occupies a BD-66 disc with the 1080p presentation and bonus features scoring a BD-50 disc. Each disc opens to a simple static image main menu with traditional navigation options. The included digital copy is Movies Anywhere compatible.
Who says murder can’t look beautiful? Thanks to Kenneth Branagh’s love for large-format film, Death on the Nile - like Murder on the Orient Express - was shot on 65mm and it creates a pretty damn beautiful 2160p HDR10 transfer. If not for some slightly dodgy CGI effects that call too much attention to themselves, this is a meticulously crafted image that gives disc-buyers a near demo-worthy presentation.
For starters, the image maintains a lovely organic cinematic appearance with crisp clean details and a healthy grain structure. Immediately you can appreciate facial features and costume details and textures. When Branagh establishes the SS Karnak, the long tracking shot with the camera seamlessly moving in and around the sets and actors into a wide shot as Linnet descends the stars down towards Poirot’s cabin is stunning! It helps that this is one of the moments where the CGI background work is impeccable creating a full illusion that this boat steamed the mighty Nile.
HDR10 does wonders for the live practical sets and locations. Some of the more heavily CGI-created elements like the Great Pyramid, Sphinx, and a few other scenery shots are a tad dicey - as such shots were in Orient Express - but they work far better thanks to the HDR pass than the 1080p Blu-ray. The HDR pass does appear slightly darker overall than the 1080p disc, but that’s to a benefit. Since this film was largely shot on sound stages, there are a lot of CGI scenery extensions that are just awkwardly obvious in 1080p but blend better with the extra care and attention to coloring and contrast. In comparison, the 1080p disc just feels way too bright at times - early when Poirot meets Bouc’s mother for the first time, the Egyptian scenery extensions are already dodgy but something about how bright and hot the colors are in 1080p just makes it look like a cartoon. That’s not the case here. Black levels are deep and inky giving plenty of creepy shadows to work with.
On 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, Death on the Nile arrives with an effective Dolby Atmos audio mix. My complaint with this one is similar to a number of Disney/20th Century releases where the mix is a tad soft and needs to be compensated a few bumps. But that’s it. The opening WWI scene is a slick action-packed piece of work, but what I love most is the imaging when we’re deep in the murder mystery. As Branagh’s Poirot is interviewing each suspect, the camera can pan or slide around the room and when it does the voices move closer or further away from the center mark. It’s a really slick effect. Overheads are well utilized with sounds of birds, or people milling about between decks. When a body is found in the paddlewheel the overhead action is intense, and the smashing of the waves is a gloriously creepy effect.
From a blues club song and dance number to the quiet creepy meat freezer on the Karnak, the sound design for this film is terrific. Dialog is clean and clear throughout without issue. Subs get a little activity here and there, the opening WWI sequence and then a few moments throughout offer up some nice LFE - otherwise there’s not a lot to call attention to itself in that arena. If it hadn’t been for the need to pop my levels a bit I’d be giving this higher marks. As it is, it’s a darn good audio mix that fits the nature of this stylish whodunnit.
Bonus features are unfortunately very brief. There’s some good information peppered throughout to give you some idea of what it took to bring this film together, but not a lot. Pretty typical EPK stuff. While the deleted scenes don’t offer anything of note that you’d want to see in the film proper, they showcase some of the unfinished visual effects and it’s actually quite surprising to see how much CGI work went into creating certain sequences.
The adventures of Hercule Poirot continue under the direction of Kenneth Branagh in Death on the Nile. The second time around as the world’s greatest detective sees Branagh on stronger sea legs with a new adaptation of Christie’s classic book. It may not be perfect and it takes a number of liberties with the source material, but the film proves to be a better and more engaging whodunnit. Disney/20th Century Studios brings Death on the Nile to port with an impressive 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release. This native 4K HDR10 presentation proves to be an outstanding visual feast with an engaging Atmos mix to match. Bonus features are informative but sadly very slim for such a large-scale production. If you enjoyed Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express I’m sure you’ll have a great time with this one. If you didn’t care for Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express (like me), well, you may be surprised to see yourself enjoying this one. Recommended