[Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for Kenneth Branagh’s “Death on the Nile.”]
When actor Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual harassment and assault by a dozen men in October 2017, the reckoning forced an unexpected professional outcome: He was snipped wholesale from Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” a film that had already wrapped production by the time Spacey was hit by the myriad allegations. It was the stuff of instant legend: Director Ridley Scott made the choice to cut Spacey and replace him with Christopher Plummer within days of the accusations hitting the wire, had cameras rolling in weeks, and had the entire thing sewn up for it already-planned December release date.
The reaction was lauded, as was Plummer’s performance (he earned an Oscar nod for it), and suddenly, there seemed to be a plausible way to deal with problematic stars whose scandals might prove to be a liability for their professional projects. But while Scott and his cast and crew paved the way for such replacements, other projects have not followed suit, likely due to the combination of big money (Scott’s reshoots reportedly cost $10 million, quintupling the film’s budget) and the complexity of cutting performers out of projects not as conducive to such snips (most of Spacey’s scenes only featured him, though a single wide shot with the actor still remains in the film, as it was too complicated to reshoot with Plummer).
Enter: “Death on the Nile.” Kenneth Branagh’s followup to his immensely popular 2017 Agatha Christie adaptation “Murder on the Orient Express” seemed like a slam dunk when it was announced just days after the premiere of “Murder.” As Branagh added more and more big stars to the cast — Gal Gadot and Annette Bening and Russell Brand, to name a few — it appeared primed for success similar to its predecessor. In 2018, when Branagh cast Armie Hammer, hot off his breakthrough role in “Call Me by Your Name,” it was yet another feather in the film’s cap.
And then. In 2021, after weeks of social media rumors about Hammer’s sexual proclivities, the actor was accused of rape by a woman identified only as Effie. In March 2021, the woman alleged that the sexual assault took place in April 2017 and that, during an encounter, Hammer “violently raped” her and repeatedly banged her head against a wall. The actress also said that Hammer committed other “violent acts” against her without her consent. (The actor has denied that any of their interactions were not consensual.)
Soon, Hammer was dropped from a slew of projects — “Shotgun Wedding,” “Billion Dollar Spy,” “Next Goal Wins,” “The Offer,” and the Broadway production of “The Minutes” — though none had yet to begin production.
Already in the can: “Death on the Nile,” which had been set for a December 20, 2019 release, before being pushed to October 9, 2020, owing to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The film was again moved, first to October 23, 2020, then December 18, 2020, followed by a push to September 17, 2021. In March 2021, following the Hammer allegations, it was moved to its eventual date: February 11, 2022.
More than two years after the film wrapped production, Branagh’s film is finally seeing the light of day, but without any obvious snips to Hammer’s character, newlywed Simon Doyle. What happened on “All the Money in the World,” though instructive, is clearly still something of an outlier, and many of the same elements that made it possible for Scott to recast and reshoot the part (again, money and mostly unfussy scenes) with Plummer weren’t possible for Branagh’s film, particularly in the age of COVID.
Like its predecessor, the Agatha Christie whodunit murder mystery hinges on a starry ensemble cast — if there is any single star in the film, it’s Branagh himself, as legendary detective Hercule Poirot — often mixing and mingling with each other. Our first introduction to Simon: a complicated dance sequence in a bustling nightclub, complete with turns ’round the floor with both his current fiancee Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) and his eventual wife Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot). As the film unfolds, the central mystery revolves around Simon and Linnet, leading to sequence after sequence of the pair with both each other and the rest of the big cast.
In short: the Plummer solution was a no-go here, but at least Branagh made a film in which no single person (including Hammer) can rightly be said to be stealing the spotlight from him. Branagh and Disney got (relatively) lucky here, because the same reasons Hammer could likely not be cut (too many scenes, too complicated) are the same ones that allow him to kind of be forgotten (also of note: many of his other co-stars, including Gadot and Letitia Wright, have made their own missteps in recent months, a “uniquely cursed” cast indeed).
Hammer is present in the film’s marketing materials, though often slightly obscured. (Funnily enough, at the AMC Lincoln Square, where this writer saw the film, a boxed-in display of two of the film’s costumes and a giant poster of the film’s cast offered a tiny bit of Hammer erasure: Someone had set up a mannequin to stand in front of Hammer’s image.) The film kicks off without any opening credits, so there’s no “ARMIE HAMMER” splashed on the big screen. (Hell, the film kicks off with a prologue about the origin of a mustache.)
And, the capper — and a major spoiler to boot, for both Branagh’s film and the classic novel that inspired it — is that Hammer is ultimately cast here as the film’s villain (well, one of two). And while his presence might make some audience members uncomfortable or upset, there’s a bit of a payoff by the film’s end, as Simon is outed as a bad guy, sweatily tries to slink off, and is killed by his compatriot and lover. And, scene! It may not be as final as Spacey’s cutting, but it’s surely something to see a slack-jawed, bloodied Hammer laid out by the film’s end.
It may also be Hammer’s curtain call. After the accusation, Hammer was dropped by WME, completed a long stint in rehab, and was the subject of a nine-month LAPD investigation that wrapped up in December. As of this writing, he has not made any media appearances in support of Branagh’s film and has yet to line up any new projects. It’s no mystery as to why.
20th Century Studios will release “Death on the Nile” in theaters on Friday, February 11.