There are many mysteries swirling in and around Death on the Nile, director-star Kenneth Branagh’s second attempt, after 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, to sell Agatha Christie’s master sleuth Hercule Poirot — and by extension, a larger Poirotverse — to a new generation of old people. (Let’s not kid ourselves here: This is a film 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 weren’t 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 screen Poirots from Peter Ustinov to David Suchet have sported delicately trimmed, elegantly waxed upper-lip hair, Branagh’s version has what appears to be a cresting, two-tier tonsorial tsunami happening in the middle of his face; the biggest question regarding his adaptation of Murder was whether the man was wearing that majestic ‘stache or it was wearing him. That film’s sequel opens with an elaborate preamble that involves a young Poirot, WWI and PTSD, all at the service of explaining how and why that monstrosity now perches above his mouth. It feels like a weak, easy attempt at giving this canon-worthy snoop more depth in addition to his quirks and genius-level deductive skills, though it actually achieves the opposite: He becomes yet another classic fictional character reduced to the sum of his traumas and tragedies. There’s a last-act payoff to this morsel of backstory, sort of, but it’s a head-scratching misstep on the filmmaker’s part. It will not be the last.
Then there’s the mystery of whether celebrity-filled whodunnits are still viable enough to sustain such big-screen endeavors. Yes, Knives Out proved that if you deposit a dead body in the middle of a mansion and get an idiosyncratic detective to go full metal Sherlock on marquee-name suspects, moviegoers will come — Rian Johnson’s movie is a perfect blend of genre homage, a gentle ribbing at the mustiness of these drawing-room thrillers and an ungodly amount of fun. Not to mention that TV is proving that there are still signs of life in the old warhorse formula (see: The Afterparty). Nile‘s tale of a honeymoon trip that finds Poirot investigating who’s responsible for that exquisite corpse several cabins over is designed as a dual throwback, however, to both Christie’s 1930s scenarios and the mid-1970s/early 1980s movies based on them. It’s a gorgeous throwback at that, with a droolworthy Art Deco production design, though it also comes perilously close to making you feel like you’ve stepped onto a vintage amusement-park ride: Egyptian Adventure Cruise, complete with cobras, crocodiles, underground tombs and falling chunks of ancient facades. Get your ensemble cast, decked out in glamorous cosplay and colliding into quaint-to-queasy old-fashioned archetypes, right here!
Still, quelle famous faces! In addition to Branagh’s scenery-snacking sleuth, the other party denizens include: Gal Gadot as an heiress who’s just become a blushing bride; Sex Education‘s Emma Mackey as her dearest friend and the woman originally betrothed to Gadot’s groom; Russell Brand, playing it extremely straight and stiff-upper-lipped as a doctor; Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, together again (huzzah!) as the requisite snickering, sniping old biddies; Sophie Okonedo as a “bluesy music” singer managed by her niece, Letitia Wright; Tom Bateman, back for Round Two as Poirot’s old buddy from the first movie but now traveling with his mom, a.k.a. Annette Bening in high camp mode; and Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie as a maid with her eye on a priceless necklace.
Oh, right, there’s one other actor in the cast who we have not mentioned yet, and he’s smack-dab in the middle of Death on the Nile‘s biggest mystery of them all, far bigger than the whodunnit, the whydtheydoit, or the willpayingaudiencesseeit. It’s a query by which even Poirot, with his keen eye for clues and top-shelf powers of observation and astute understanding of human psychology, would be vexed: How do you solve a problem like Armie Hammer?
Disney — the company that bought Fox, and thus reluctantly inherited Branagh’s experiment in old-timey entertainment — has adopted a marketing policy that you could best describe as: We don’t talk about Armie. (See if you can spot him in their fancy installation that showcases several gowns actually used in the movie!) You probably know the story of the accusations levied against the Call Me By Your Name star, and why he’s been persona non grata for the past few years. In a better world, we wouldn’t need to talk about Armie, or bad behavior among the rich and famous, or cannibalism fetishization, or any number of toxic, unsavory topics.
We live in this world, however, and while it may seem unfair to fixate on one bad actor at the expense of an entire project, no movie exists in a vacuum. Hammer plays a handsome cad who wins over Mackey’s socialite and then, when she asks Gadot’s character to give him a handyman job, he seduces the heiress as well. It’s a prominent part, one that calls for him to be roguish, charming, and hornier than a goatherd, and good lord, is it uncomfortable to watch. It is quite possibly the last thing you want to see Hammer doing right now — playing someone with an edge of danger that’s inseparable from studly sex appeal — and it serves as a dissonant record-scratch among the tony, glossy escapism that Branagh and the rest of the performers are aiming for.
It’s there in the back of your head as Branagh banters with his co-stars. (Suspect: “He accuses everyone of murder!” Poirot: [sheepishly] “It is a problem, I admit.”) It’s there as bodies keep turning up and shadowy figures run to and fro on deck. It’s there even as you find yourself drawn into the exotic locales and dated-yet-still-dreamy pleasures of a Christie mystery, and admit that, after the creaky feel of Branagh’s original Poirot outing, he’s managed to get a better handle on the pace and tone of an old whodunnit. It’s even there as you imagine the possibilities of an ACEU — Agatha Christie Extended Universe — and wonder if Helen Mirren will unexpectedly pop up as one Ms. Jane Marple during the end credits. (Spoiler: She does not.)
Whether there was a solution to the Curious Case of the Cannibalism-Accused Star is unknown, of course, and short of reshooting the entire thing (which Disney would never sign off on; you feel like they want to be rid of their Fox inventory ASAP and go back to concentrating on endless Star Wars TV shows), the best option was to simply release this, go “What scandal?” and move on. Death on the Nile has its joys and flaws apart from that Armie factor, but it’s almost like trying to assess whether the appetizer course could have been slightly undercooked while an elephant stampedes over the whole dinner table. You don’t even need your little gray cells to see that even when things do sync up, its legacy as a mystery-movie mulligan is already underway.