In 2018, when Gal Gadot was cast in a starring role in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the Agatha Christie drama Death on the Nile which opened in Israel on Thursday, she was flying high with her success in her first Wonder Woman movie and it seemed that her career as a dramatic actress, not only a superhero, had started.
Branagh is one of the finest directors working today, earning both critical and commercial acclaim, as well as a classical actor, and his other new film Belfast is an Oscar front-runner. He was just coming off the success of his first Agatha Christie vehicle, a remake of Murder on the Orient Express, which was a surprise box-office hit. This time, the whodunit would be set aboard a luxury cruise in Egypt.
Gadot looked to have hit the jackpot. Death on the Nile would have a huge budget, lavish costumes and production design, exotic locations and a host of big-name actors. Branagh would reprise his role as one of literature’s best-loved detectives, Hercule Poirot and the cast would include one of Hollywood’s most stunning leading men, Armie Hammer, as well as Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous), Annette Bening, Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones), Sophie Okonedo, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal (Victoria & Abdul) and Dawn French.
The 1937 Christie novel had been adapted into a stage play and was filmed in 1978, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and Lois Chiles in Gadot’s role. Gadot was cast in the role of alluring heiress Linnet Ridgeway, who steals Simon Doyle (Hammer) away from his fiancée and her former best friend, Jacqueline (Emma Mackey, best known for the Netflix series Sex Education). It was a role where Gadot would have to look good in a series of slinky gowns, which of course would be easy for the actress, who showed that she could fit right into a period setting in the World War I scenes of Wonder Woman. However, she would also have to be charming and lively in a way that would showcase her natural screen presence. The stars seemed aligned for Gadot’s star to rise in Death on the Nile, which was originally scheduled to be released in December, 2020.
THEN TWO UNFORESEEN situations came up, which delayed the release of the film for more than a year: The COVID-19 pandemic and a series of bizarre and increasingly serious sexual abuse allegations against Hammer.
KENNETH BRANAGH directed and also appeared in the film. (credit: Robert Youngson/Twentieth Century Fox)
While filming, which took place mostly in England and Morocco (which doubled as Egypt) wrapped up in December, 2019, before the pandemic broke. Theaters around the world were shuttered for much of 2020 and a big Christmas release did not seem to be in the cards in 2020 or 2021 either.
Hammer, whose career as a leading Hollywood star was ascending in tandem with Gadot’s, following his roles in the Netflix remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and the critically acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, became the subject of lurid gossip in early 2021, when multiple women accusing him of violent sexual abuse released text messages they claimed were from him detailing violent fantasies, including many that involved cannibalism. As much of the world was locked down, the scandal went viral. Hammer denied that any of the encounters with these women were non-consensual, but in March, 2021, one of the woman formally accused Hammer of rape and he is currently the subject of an investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department. His agent, William Morris Endeavor, dropped him and he was replaced in several upcoming television and movie projects. Vanity Fair ran a long article linking his troubles to the sometimes scandalous history of his family, noting that he is the great grandson of controversial oil tycoon and philanthropist Armand Hammer, who is his namesake.
According to reports, the producers of Death on the Nile weighed the possibility of recasting and reshooting his role, the way Ridley Scott, one of Death on the Nile’s producers, did in the 2017 film All the Money in the World. When one of its stars, Kevin Spacey, was accused in a #MeToo scandal, Scott reshot all of Spacey’s scenes with Christopher Plummer. Most of Spacey’s scenes in that film were with one or two other actors, but due to the large ensemble cast in Death on the Nile, this solution would not have been feasible.
WHETHER AUDIENCES WILL warm to a movie with an actor in the midst of a scandal remains to be seen, but producers are hoping that the big-budget glitz and all the other stars will lure people into the theaters that were recently emptied by the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
One place where audiences will not be flocking to the film is Kuwait, where the government responded to an angry social-media frenzy over Gadot’s role by banning the movie. Kuwait remains firmly opposed to normalizing relations with Israel, in sharp contrast to other Middle Eastern nations, such as the United Arab Emirates, and the fact that Gadot is an IDF veteran who has criticized Hamas is reason enough for the Kuwaitis to ban her films. As well, Kuwait, Lebanon and other Arab countries banned Wonder Woman.
In spite of these issues, the movie has received positive reviews in general and Gadot has drawn praise in particular. Owen Gleiberman said in Variety that Gadot displays a vivacious spark she hasn’t always shown outside the Wonder Woman films.
In the years since Gadot was cast in Death on the Nile, she has gotten other high-profile roles in dramatic films, including the recent Netflix drama Red Notice, which was extremely popular with audiences. As well, she is preparing for roles in the thriller Heart of Stone, the Cleopatra remake, a new Snow White and Wonder Woman 3, so whether Death on the Nile sinks or swims, her career will soar.