Whilst most films set for release over the last two years were understandably shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenneth Branagh‘s Death on the Nile has been more than just a casualty of coronavirus. Though its initial late 2020 release was pulled due to the ongoing pandemic – and industry insiders spooked by Tenet‘s “underperformance” – its 2021 plans were ultimately derailed by (indirectly) certain political and personal views of its cast and, more severely, the sexual and cannibalistic abuse allegations against star Armie Hammer.
One problematic star is already enough for a film to deal with, but Hammer’s appearance in addition to Russell Brand and Letitia Wright‘s anti-vaccination views, as well as Gal Gadot‘s controversial stance on the Israeli-Palestine crisis, unfortunately almost brands Death on the Nile dead on arrival, an unfortunate shame for a film that, in actuality, is entirely harmless.
Though I assume many of the general movie going public – especially the older crowd this film is targeting – won’t be carrying much of the aforementioned actors’ weight into their viewings, there is still a level of discomfort when watching Hammer, whose horny, insatiable Simon Doyle feels like he’s going to sexually devour his co-stars on screen. It works for his character, but witnessing him dry-hump both Emma Mackey‘s scorned Jacqueline de Bellefort and Gadot’s Linnet Ridgeway at various points in the film certainly doesn’t entirely sit right. But, then again, his character is meant to be somewhat lecherous and untrustworthy, so when we’re introduced to him as Jacqueline’s beau, only to then be married to Linnet moments later (6 weeks in the narrative), he’s immediately on our suspect list for when the Nile-set festivities end in someone’s death.
As Branagh’s wonderfully moustached Hercule Poirot, a self-acclaimed world famous detective, pronounces that “there’s been a murder” aboard the S.S. Karnak, the extravagant ship that houses Linnet and Simon on their extended honeymoon, the film soon leans into its camp theatricality as he investigates the who, how and why behind the fatal act. Because this is a murder mystery, it isn’t just Linnet and Simon caught in the fray but their circle of acquaintances, meaning the inquisitive Poirot has his work cut out for him as he questions and accuses a rather fabulously cast ensemble.
Much like the film’s predecessor, Murder on the Orient Express – which boasted the likes of Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Olivia Colman amongst the suspects – Nile serves up its share of formidable talent as the could-be killer, with an at-times seething Annette Bening (as a renowned painter), a slinky Sophie Okonedo (as a famous jazz singer), and a comedically inclined Jennifer Saunders (as Linnet’s godmother) all doing just enough to earn as much suspicion as they do sympathy. The Michael Green-penned script makes sure each character has a motive, however convenient that may be, and, to the film’s credit, it’s ultimate reveal is one that it has a grand time leading up to with a genuinely surprising mentality.
Though Death on the Nile has become a punchline, due to both its unfortunate casting and the unfair roasting of Gadot’s line delivery (did you hear she hopes there’s enough champagne to fill the Nile?), in an alternative timeline there’s a peaceful release for Branagh’s well-intentioned, knowingly amusing mystery. Taking itself less seriously than Orient Express, Death on the Nile is a lighter, more tongue-in-cheek affair that benefits from Branagh’s winking performance and a cast that are all entirely in on the overt melodrama the film adheres to.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Death on the Nile is screening in Australian theatres from February 10th, 2022.