Death on the Nile, an all-star sequel to Kenneth Branagh's all-star adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, finally opens this week after a number of pandemic-related release-date changes. The nearly 18-month delay has not been kind to its stacked ensemble, which has become impressively embattled in the interim. The cast squirming under the watchful eye of master detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh himself) includes Armie Hammer (accused of sexual assault), Russell Brand (ongoing anti-vaccine campaigning), and Letitia Wright (shared a video including anti-vax and transphobic sentiments).
So how is it that Gal Gadot has become the public face of Death on the Nile mockery?
Granted, Gadot has experienced her own controversies, from serious (issuing a vague call for Israel-Palestine peace that clearly prioritized her home country of Israel) to mild distraction (making a tone-deaf "Imagine" singalong video in the early days of a global pandemic). But while the personal ickiness of Hammer, Brand, and Wright seems to transcend whatever one thinks of their performances, Gadot's PR stumbles seem to be just enough to add a dash of moral superiority to a more old-fashioned criticism: That she simply cannot act. The most recent Death on the Nile trailers sealed her fate by highlighting a line-reading that has become a Twitter meme. Her character, speaking to a group of friends and frenemies aboard a celebratory river cruise, boasts that they have "enough champagne … to fill the Nile!" That ellipsis isn't eliding part of the line; it's a stand-in for an awkward pause.
Of course, there's nothing especially tragic about making fun of a wealthy, powerful, beautiful model-turned-actor who has made some genuine missteps, and whose current life probably features relatively little hardship beyond these tempests in a teapot. Jeering at Gadot is the very definition of punching up. Yet here's the inconvenient truth: Gadot gives a fine performance in Death on the Nile. And throughout her career, she's given fine performances more often than not.
Gadot is admittedly not in possession of a striking range; her filmography is not eclectic and contains virtually no movies that cost less than $50 million to make. She has not made any serious attempt to court awards bodies or accrue indie cred. Nearly half her movies have her playing either Wonder Woman or Gisele, her character from the Fast & Furious franchise. But within her chosen niche, she has real screen presence — an ability to draw attention to wherever she is on camera and hold onto it.
This is most pronounced in the Wonder Woman movies, where she is able to project both otherworldly poise and an open-hearted naïveté as Diana Prince. The much-maligned sequel Wonder Woman 1984 (which seemed to be the point where sentiment on her turned from "a charming and likable Wonder Woman" to "terrible actress") focuses obsessively on the quality of honesty, a perfect fit with how Gadot emphasizes Diana's guileless inability to conceal her true self. Similarly, that was part of her casting in the underseen spy comedy Keeping Up with Joneses, where maintaining her cover as part of a normal suburban couple quickly became an impossibility. She also momentarily lights up the recent Netflix mediocrity Red Notice by simple virtue of being the only major cast member not attempting to do any shtick.
Never disappearing into a character might sound a bit like, well, bad acting. But that's also a big part of movie stardom — which has a strong historical track record of being mistaken for bad acting. Death on the Nile represents a change of pace for Gadot, in that she's playing someone more successful at putting on airs: Linnet, a glamorous newlywed attempting to charm her way through a fabulous party while feeling increased paranoia over the reappearance of a spurned friend. In the midst of her stressed event-planning, Linnet finds time to dress up as Cleopatra, a role Gadot has long been attached to play (though the movie seems no closer to actually going in front of cameras any time soon).
So yes, she says a mildly stilted line about a Nile's worth of champagne, while playing hostess whose heart isn't really in it. No one paying any attention to this melodramatic, old-fashioned, silly-but-very-entertaining mystery should find that line, or much of anything else Gadot does in this movie, wildly distracting or out of character. If anything, roles like this specifically avoid her weak spots as a performer, positioning her as an Old Hollywood beauty with charisma and perhaps light anguish. Fielding haters who once professed to love her, showing off her own glamour, unable to conceal her true emotions, pretending to be Cleopatra … if Gadot had a slightly bigger career, Death on the Nile would qualify as a star text.
The movie is too much of an ensemble whodunit to really commit to fully becoming Waiting for Gadot. But its lineup of disgraced stars does feel weirdly, uncomfortably appropriate to accommodate Gadot's status as shining, glitzy damaged goods. So many of those famous faces — photographed in rich 70mm, far more impressive than the virtual-Egypt scenery — have a touch of moral failing or outright rot. It truly feels plausible that anyone in the movie could be embroiled in a murder, whether as suspect or victim. The delightful, ridiculous scam of Branagh's film is that it briefly makes the frivolous business of movie stardom feel improbably dangerous.