How Did ‘Death on the Nile’ Become Such a Publicity Nightmare?

20th Century Studios

20th Century Studios

If Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express felt a little queasy to watch thanks to Johnny Depp, the director’s follow-up, Death on the Nile, seems downright noxious. The second of Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptations, the film stars a who’s-who of embattled celebrities—a collection of scandals that threatens to overshadow the handily executed (if somewhat predictable) Hercule Poirot murder mystery.

But in contrast to films like Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which cast Depp despite Amber Heard’s allegations of domestic abuse, the collection of scandals among Death on the Nile‘s cast appears to have accumulated by unfortunate coincidence. Actors like Armie Hammer, Russell Brand, and Letitia Wright might all be in hot water now, but each of their respective PR issues seem to have occurred after the film was already in the can. (Speaking of which, whatever happened to that “postponed” press tour?)

Death on the Nile follows an increasingly terrified couple (Gal Gadot as heiress Linnet Ridgeway Doyle and Armie Hammer as her lovestruck, pedigreeless husband, Simon Doyle) as they attempt to enjoy their honeymoon. The couple sets about touring Egypt before boarding the SS Karnak with several “friends,” all of whom seem to have their own suspicious motives and interests. Emma Mackey plays Linnet’s ex-bestie Jacqueline de Bellefort, who was madly in love with Simon before Linnet swept him away for herself. Terrified by Jackie’s relentless stalking, Linnet begs our favorite French detective to come aboard with her merry band of suspicious friends and relatives—none of whom she really trusts.

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Shooting for Death on the Nile took place in late 2019, before most of its major cast had made unsavory headlines. The film was originally slated for release in December 2020, but was then delayed until Feb. 11 of this year. In the meantime, its cast has faced an almost improbable amount of bad press.

Hammer’s presence might be the most troubling hurdle facing the film. Last January, he was forced to respond to unverified claims of abuse from multiple women, who alleged the actor discussed slave fantasies, cannibalism fantasies, blood-sucking, and mutilation. Powerhouse attorney Gloria Allred began representing one of Hammer’s accusers, Effie, last year. Effie claims to have been in a relationship with Hammer for four years and said that during one terrifying encounter, “I thought that he was going to kill me… I was completely in shock, and I couldn’t believe that someone I loved did that to me.”

Both Hammer and his lawyer, Andrew Brettler, have denied the rape and abuse allegations against him, which the actor has called “bullshit claims.”

In a statement last year, Brettler said, “From day one, Mr. Hammer has maintained that all of his interactions with [Effie]—and every other sexual partner of his for that matter—have been completely consensual, discussed and agreed upon in advance, and mutually participatory.”

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As Allred put it at a press conference, however, “It is important to emphasize that even if a sexual partner agrees to certain sex activity, she still has a right at any point to withdraw her consent… Even if a partner consents to some sexual acts, that does not mean that there is consent to any and all sexual conduct with her. It should also not be interpreted as consent to sexual abuse or criminal violence against her.”

Hammer reportedly completed a months-long stint in rehab in December. He has been recast in several productions since the cannibal allegations broke, including Shotgun Wedding, The Offer, and Next Goal Wins. Disney, which first pushed back the release date for Death on the Nile in November 2020 due to the pandemic, reportedly considered recasting Hammer’s role or digitally editing him out. Ultimately, however, THR reports that the studio decided such a maneuver would not be feasible due to the size of the ensemble cast and the ongoing pandemic. A trailer released last winter seemed like an attempt to downplay Hammer’s appearance, but he remains a crucial and constant presence in the film itself.

But Hammer’s not the only Death on the Nile star to land in hot water since the film’s announcement. The other half of the film’s central couple, Gadot, has faced scrutiny for years thanks to her outspoken positions regarding the conflict between Israel and Palestine—an issue that resurfaced last spring when the actress and former IDF soldier (participation is mandatory in her native Israel) sounded off on the political strife as Israel barraged the Gaza Strip with airstrikes. “Israel deserves to live as a free and safe nation,” Gadot wrote at the time. “Our neighbours deserve the same.” The actress later disabled comments on the post as online vitriol grew.

Fellow cast members Russell Brand and Letitia Wright, meanwhile, have both come under fire for promoting anti-vaxx views amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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Brand, whose YouTube channel styles him as something of a provocateur who’s “just asking questions,” has spent months using his platform to spread vaccine skepticism. He’s also railed against vaccine mandates, saying in one video, “The idea of mandating something, that’s authoritarianism. That’s what that is. That’s telling people they have to do stuff.” (If only he and Evangeline Lilly, who recently posted about her decision to attend an anti-vaxx protest, could save these missives for the group chat.)

Wright has denied sharing anti-vaxx views on the set of Black Panther 2, as described in a dispatch from The Hollywood Reporter, calling the reports “completely untrue.” When production on the Marvel sequel started back up in January, Wright was among the returning cast. But even before that report surfaced, she landed herself in trouble by sharing a video titled “COVID-19 Vaccine, Should We Take It?” The video, from Light London Church leader Tomi Arayomi, was rife with misinformation about COVID-19, the pandemic, and vaccines.

At first, Wright did not seem concerned about the backlash she was facing on social media. “[I]f you don’t conform to popular opinions but ask questions and think for yourself… you get cancelled,” she wrote. She later added: “[M]y ONLY intention of posting the video was it raised my concerns with what the vaccine contains and what we are putting in our bodies. Nothing else.”

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It’s unclear whether the mess surrounding a healthy portion of Death on the Nile’s cast will affect its box office haul (Depp’s presence certainly didn’t seem to stop Murder on the Orient Express from becoming a top player for Fox in 2017). It’d be somewhat of a shame for the film, which is beautifully shot by Branagh as he continues to relish the role of Belgium’s biggest know-it-all. Sophie Okonedo steals the show as Salome Otterbourne, a bluesy jazz singer with a sumptuous turban collection and impeccably campy ’30s drawl. And Mackey, best known for playing Maeve on Netflix’s Sex Education, gives a delightful performance as this film’s woman scorned.

Then again, Depp was one star in a crowded train of A-listers, not a group of embattled stars who comprise a healthy chunk of the film’s ensemble. The piles of bad headlines might not sink the ship—but a lot of paddling might lie ahead.

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