Amid delays and scandals, mediocre ‘Death on the Nile’ plummets to theaters

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There’s at least one moment in Kenneth Branagh’s latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile,” where what’s onscreen rubs uncomfortably against what’s offscreen. Linnet Doyle, an enviably wealthy socialite on a honeymoon cruise on the Nile, has just been found shot dead in her cabin; her husband, Simon, is an inconsolable wreck, sobbing loudly over her body. Watching this oddly tense and oddly revealing scene, I must have wondered why Simon’s grief rings so hollow. Could it be because the character is presented, both in the film and in Christie’s 1937 novel, as an opportunistic mute? Or could it have something to do with the fact that he’s played here by Armie Hammer, the former Hollywood golden boy who is accused by multiple women of sexual assault and abuse?

Some would probably prefer that I pass over this scandal in silence, as if it were incidental or unrelated to the quality of the film. Separate the art from the artist, or the product from the pretty face, or whatever. This is often easier said than done, depending on your ability to separate fiction from reality, even if that reality is disputed. (Hammer denied the allegations.) I’m not too bad myself; Compartmentalizing, like suspending disbelief, is part of a critic’s job and a cinephile’s prerogative. Still, it seems odd to dodge the issue of Hammer’s alleged misconduct when the film’s own distributor clearly sees it as more than a minor inconvenience.

When the allegations against Hammer surfaced last year, Disney reportedly considered reshooting his scenes with another actor, much like Christopher Plummer replaced the disgraced Kevin Spacey in “All the Money in the World.” (That call came from director Ridley Scott, a producer on “Death on the Nile.”) In the end, Simon Doyle’s role was too big and Hammer’s interactions with the rest of the ensemble too extensive. to do such damage. feasible control. And so, after several release date delays – mostly due to the pandemic, though you don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to suspect other motives – the film finally hits theaters this week, reeking of the goods. damaged and seeking an audience that will ‘t mind. It just might find that audience, especially among those who devoured its predecessor, “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Like that 2017 hit, “Death on the Nile” is a decidedly mixed bag. It’s nowhere near as good as John Guillermin’s still delightful 1978 film adaptation, with its authentic Egyptian locations and memorable turns from Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury. But it’s also not as bad as some might have expected or even hoped. Christie’s story, one of his finest, is hard to screw up, even when Branagh and his returning screenwriter, Michael Green, seem determined to prove otherwise. Their film is an often choppy, hectic confusion of old pleasures and 21st century sensibilities, a mix that results in some particularly incongruous visual choices. (Shot by Haris Zambarloukos in England and Morocco, the film leans heavily on digitally evoked Egyptian locations, a choice that doesn’t sit too well with its use of 65mm film stock.)

Once again, Branagh’s general direction – poor lighting, clumsy blocking, ill-motivated camera placement – proves rather less involving than his witty and touching performance as Poirot, the mustachioed Belgian detective known for his extraordinary deductive powers, obsessive – compulsive order and sweet tooth. Joining him this time in the whirlwind cast of a disappointing Gal Gadot, an exceptional Emma Mackey, an acerbic Annette Bening, a boisterous Tom Bateman (reviving his “Orient Express” role as a friend de Poirot, Bouc), a sensual Sophie Okonedo, a ferocious Letitia Wright and an almost unrecognizable Russell Brand. And, yes, a prominent Armie Hammer, whose sleazy swagger is surprisingly effective here, even if it ripples through in ways few at the time of filming could have anticipated.

Some viewers may find these reverbs appalling, assuming they watch the movie in the first place. I hate to be too specific, especially for those unfamiliar with Christie’s story, but let’s just say the plot is largely dependent on Simon’s sexual magnetism, the degree to which he pursues and manipulates – and is pursued and manipulated by – two of the equally ruthless women. And the film translates that dynamic to the screen with a shameless, sometimes awkward energy: we first meet Simon in a sweaty London nightclub, leading his fiancée, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mackey), through a routine that looks terribly twerky for the 30s. . “We have sex one parcelJacqueline confides to her childhood friend Linnet (Gadot), who will soon swoop in and steal Simon for herself with the occasional right of a multi-millionaire.

In a few weeks, Linnet and Simon are hosting a destination wedding in Egypt, where Poirot is a last-minute guest and a furious, vengeful Jacqueline stalks the happy couple at every turn. As you’d expect, the abandoned lover isn’t the only passenger aboard their Nile riverboat who has reason to wish Linnet dead. The others include a disgruntled assistant (Rose Leslie) and an unscrupulous financier (Ali Fazal) whom no one, unfortunately, accuses of running a “pyramid scheme”. Those with less discernible motives include Salome Otterbourne (Okonedo), written by Christie as a bestselling trash novelist but reimagined here as a popular blues singer; his niece and business manager, Rosalie (Wright); and Linnet’s outspoken communist godmother (Jennifer Saunders), who arrives with a fellow nurse (Dawn French).

Branagh and Green largely retained the well-oiled mechanics of Christie’s dazzling murder plot, with her smoking guns, stolen jewelry, and strategic use of nail polish. But they made a number of changes elsewhere, mostly in an effort to give the 1930s a sharper political edge. The cast has been simplified but diversified. Racism and homophobia are among the secondary villains of the story. Some of these renovations prove to be more effective than others: In the end, we are still witnessing a group of privileged tourists while the local Egyptians remain largely in the background. (It’s arguably an improvement on how they’re treated in the novel, far from being Christie’s only book to be tainted with exotic impulses and Orientalist attitudes.)

Where the screenplay stays true to the book most productively is in its atmosphere of lush, dark romance; Jacqueline is far from the only character here struggling with the exquisite cruelties of crazy Love. While perhaps overripe with locally appropriate references to Antony and Cleopatra, the dialogue has its serious charms: as one character notes on the eve of disaster, love is “not fair game.” There are no rules. Indeed, if you were to have a drink every time someone in this film portrayed love as the most powerful, all-consuming and dangerous force in the world, you would pass out faster than Poirot on the fateful night. where someone slips him a sedative. .

Ah, Poirot. Branagh clearly loves this character, leaning into the famously insightful mannerisms even as he insistently locates an emotional core beneath the pristine white suit and mustaches. Maybe too emotional; I remain skeptical of these films’ insistence on fleshing out the details of Poirot’s romantic past, elaborated here in a black-and-white prologue set during the detective’s military service in World War I. It’s soft, humanizing but also frank padding touches, and I object to it more or less for the same reasons I object to the recent sentimentalization of James Bond, brilliantly played as it was by Daniel Craig . We come back to these sleuths again and again because of their quality at what they do, not their quality at love.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.