“Death on the Nile” is finally here, more than two years after its originally planned release date.
Initially slated for a December 2019 release, the film was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, in early 2021, sexual abuse allegations against cast member Armie Hammer (“Call Me by Your Name”) surfaced, postponing its release once again. The accusations, which Hammer has denied, stemmed from leaked screenshots of direct messages purportedly sent by him, in which he detailed bizarre sexual fantasies involving violence, BDSM and cannibalism. Hammer was subsequently dropped from numerous upcoming film roles. Somewhat controversially, Disney opted not to reshoot scenes in “Death of the Nile” involving the actor — owing to the impossibility of getting the film’s ensemble cast all together again — and here we are.
As is often the case these days, the film’s star power is one of its main draws. “Death on the Nile,” based on the novel by Agatha Christie, features Gal Gadot (“Wonder Woman”) as Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle, the rich and alluring newlywed wife of Simon Doyle, portrayed by Hammer. They are on a lavish honeymoon in Egypt, accompanied by an entourage of guests connected to Linnet in one way or another, portrayed by a star-studded cast that includes Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”), Rose Leslie (“Game of Thrones”), Russell Brand (“Despicable Me”), Emma Mackey (“Sex Education”) and Kenneth Branagh (“Tenet”) — who is also the film’s director — as the iconic private detective Hercule Poirot.
The newlywed couple and their guests board the cruise ship, SS Karnak, and sail down the Nile River, taking in the sights while showered in balloons, champagne and all manner of indulgences. That is, until tragedy strikes: a murder, as helpfully suggested by the film’s title. From there, suspicions arise, tensions brew and motivations unravel as Poirot seeks to identify the killer.
Much like the Karnak, “Death on the Nile” chugs along at a steady pace. It feeds us tidbits here and there, methodically laying the groundwork for what may (or may not) set up a future reveal. It knows what it’s doing, and it knows that we know what it’s doing — an insert of a particular object here, a cutaway to a particular character’s reaction there — but it nevertheless manages to keep us guessing. Just when things begin to stall, or Poirot’s interrogations become fatiguing, a new twist or revelation draws us back into the thick of the action. And the reveals are mostly done right — Branagh’s Poirot artfully explains each with poise, precision and a certain charisma that breathes life into his otherwise calculating persona.
The camera is constantly active and roving, creating a kinetic banquet for the eyes that is rendered gorgeously on 70mm film. However, sweeping computer-generated imagery (CGI) shots of the Egyptian landscape are glossy and overcooked, undermining the elegance of intricately-designed interior sets. Extensive use of green screen, now a staple of almost every commercially-oriented, big-budget Hollywood thriller, breaks realism rather than enhancing it. This is particularly noticeable in an early scene, when Poirot first encounters an old friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman, “Cold Pursuit”), on the steps of one of the obviously artificially-rendered pyramids of Giza.
In the same scene, the film’s tonal upheaval comes to light. “Of all the pyramids in all the world, you have to walk up to mine!” Bouc exclaims to Poirot, a clear nod to the famous line in the classic 1942 film “Casablanca” (curiously, “Death on the Nile” takes place five years prior). Bouc’s statement serves as nothing more than a lighthearted quip aimed at knowing audiences — an obvious departure from its now-dated source material, “Death on the Nile” cements itself as a distinctly modern film by employing similar jests and remarks throughout. To this end, it seems to be self-aware of its humor. Yet, there are other moments that unintentionally elicit laughter, often underscored by the idea of love: an overly melodramatic reaction, a puzzling line delivery or a borderline ludicrous chain of events that makes you think, surely they did this on purpose!
Did they, or did they not? This is a line that “Death on the Nile” continually straddles as it runs its course. Either way, the film isn’t quite able to reconcile its comedic chops with the thematic weight that it tries to hold. It makes half-hearted attempts at being a self-serious film, bringing up the idea of love time and time again, even going so far as to have its characters talk openly about it. Despite this, “Death on the Nile” falls flat on thematic resonance — it seems to have forgotten the golden rule of “show, don’t tell.”
A film with significant flaws but far from a mindless watch, “Death on the Nile” is an enjoyable romp if you just don’t think too much into it, and allow yourself to go with the flow (no pun intended).
Daily Arts Contributor Adrian Hui can be reached at email@example.com.