There are many mysteries swirling in and around Death on the Nile, director-star Kenneth Branagh’s second attempt, after 2017 Murder on the Orient Expresss, to sell Agatha Christie’s master detective, Hercule Poirot – and by extension, a larger Poirotverse – to a new generation of older people. (Let’s face it here: this is a movie franchise designed to appeal to adults who may or may not be interested in superheroes and droids, but still want to go to movies that don’t have not been shot on iPhones, and it should be embraced as such.)
For starters: who needed an origin story for the Belgian master detective’s mustache? While past on-screen Poirots, from Peter Ustinov to David Suchet, sported delicately trimmed and elegantly waxed upper lip hair, Branagh’s version has what appears to be a two-tier tonsorial tsunami occurring in the middle of his face; the biggest question regarding his adaptation of Murder was whether the man wore that majestic mustache or whether she wore it. The sequel to this film opens with an elaborate preamble that involves a young Poirot, World War I, and PTSD, all in service of explaining how and why this monstrosity now perches above its mouth. It looks like a weak and easy attempt to give this cannon-worthy snooper more depth on top of his whims and deductive genius skills, though he actually achieves the opposite: he becomes yet another character. of classic fiction reduced to the sum of its traumas. and tragedies. There’s a last-act payoff to this bit of backstory, of sorts, but it’s a head-scratching misstep on the filmmaker’s part. It won’t be the last.
Then there’s the mystery of whether celebrity-filled whodunits are still viable enough to support such big-screen ventures. Yes, Knives out proved that if you drop a corpse in the middle of a mansion and have an idiosyncratic detective do full metal Sherlock on high-profile suspects, moviegoers will come – Rian Johnson’s film is a perfect blend of homage to the genre, a sweet musty rib of those parlor thrillers and an unholy amount of fun. Not to mention that TV proves there are still signs of life in the old workhorse formula (see: the after party). NileThe honeymoon story in which Poirot investigates who is responsible for this exquisite corpse located several cabins away is designed as a double throwback to Christie’s 1930s screenplays and films of the mid-1970s and early 1970s. 1980s based on them. It’s a gorgeous throwback, with a drool-worthy Art Deco production design, though it’s also dangerously close to making you feel like you’ve been riding a vintage amusement park ride: Egyptian Adventure Cruise, with cobras, crocodiles, underground tombs and falling pieces of ancient facades. Get your ensemble cast, decked out in glamorous cosplay and colliding with quaint to nauseating old-fashioned archetypes, here!
Always, what famous faces! In addition to Detective Branagh, other party denizens include: Gal Gadot as an heiress who has just become a blushing bride; Sex education‘s Emma Mackey as her dearest friend and the woman originally engaged to Gadot’s fiancé; Russell Brand, playing him extremely straight and stiff as a doctor; Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, together again (huzzah!) as sneering, sniping old bidies; Sophie Okonedo as a singer of “bluesy music” directed by her niece, Letitia Wright; Tom Bateman, back for round two as Poirot’s old pal from the first film but now traveling with his mother, aka Annette Bening in high camp mode; and game of thrones’ Rose Leslie as a servant with one eye on a priceless necklace.
Oh that’s right, there’s another actor in the cast that we haven’t mentioned yet, and he’s right in the middle of Death on the Nileis the biggest mystery of all, far bigger than whodunit, why they do it or whether paying audiences want to see it. It’s a question that even Poirot, with his keen eye for clues and his first-rate powers of observation and astute understanding of human psychology, would be vexed by: How do you solve a problem like Armie Hammer?
Disney – the company that bought Fox, and therefore reluctantly inherited Branagh’s experience in old-school entertainment – has adopted a marketing policy that you could best describe as follows: we’re not talking about ‘Army. (See if you can spot it in their whimsical installation which features several dresses actually used in the film!) You probably know the history of the charges against the call me by your name star, and why he has been persona non grata for a few years. In a better world, we wouldn’t need to talk about Armie, or bad behavior among the rich and famous, or cannibalism fetishism, or any number of toxic and disreputable topics.
We live in that world, however, and while it might seem unfair to focus on one bad actor at the expense of an entire project, no film exists in a vacuum. Hammer plays a handsome cad who seduces Mackey’s socialite and then, when she asks Gadot’s character for a handyman job, he also seduces the heiress. It’s an important part, the one that calls for him to be mischievous, charming, and more horny than a goatherd, and good lord, it’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s quite possibly the last thing you want to see Hammer doing right now – playing someone with an edge of danger that’s inseparable from studious sex appeal – and it serves as a dissonant record among the breakout tony and brilliant that Branagh and the rest of the performers are aiming for.
It’s there in the back of your head as Branagh jokes around with his co-stars. (Suspect: “He accuses everyone of murder!” Poirot: [sheepishly] “It’s a problem, I admit. He is there as bodies continue to appear and shadowy figures move back and forth across the bridge. It’s there even if you find yourself drawn into the exotic locales and dated but still dreamy pleasures of a Christie mystery, and admit that after the squealing feel of Branagh’s original Poirot outing, he’s managed to better master rhythm. and the tone of an old thriller. It’s even where you imagine the possibilities of an ACEU – Agatha Christie Extended Universe – and wonder if Helen Mirren will unexpectedly appear as Mrs. Jane Marple during the end credits. (disclose: She does not.)
It’s unclear if there was a solution to the curious case of the star being accused of cannibalism, of course, and unless we redid the whole thing (which Disney would never sign off on; you get the feeling they want to get rid of their Fox inventory ASAP and start focusing on endless star wars TV shows), the best option was to just post this, go “What scandal?” and move forward. Death on the Nile has its joys and flaws aside from that Armie factor, but it’s almost like trying to assess whether the appetizer course might have been slightly undercooked while an elephant stalks the entire dinner table. You don’t even need your little gray cells to see that even when things sync up, his legacy as a mystery movie mulligan is already underway.