In 2017, Kenneth Branagh, often an adaptor of classic literature in his work as an actor/director, set his sights on a new author and character: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. While David Suchet had masterfully played Christie’s Belgian detective for decades on television, it had been nearly 30 years since Peter Ustinov had last portrayed the detective on the silver screen. Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express featured a good script and an impressive stable of movie stars. It was also a big box office success and generally well received by critics (including myself). This all but guaranteed a return visit for Branagh’s Poirot. But while the famous detective solved the case in 2022’s Death on the Nile, a combination of lingering COVID fears and Armie Hammer-related controversy left him defeated at the box office. But these days, it’s hard to keep a franchise down, so just a year later, Branagh and Poirot return with A Haunting in Venice.
The film is set in 1947, where Poirot, worn down by the darkness at the heart of the cases he is so adept at solving, has retired in Venice. He refuses to entertain the idea of further detective work, despite a line of audience seekers at his door each day. Indeed, he has a bodyguard, former police officer Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scarmacio) to help keep them away. However, a visit from mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) piques his interest. Oliver has been invited to a seance to call the spirit of a young woman who died the year before, and the medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) is famous for having been the last person arrested under witchcraft laws. Oliver is able to get Poirot to accompany her to this Halloween party/seance, which is hosted by the dead woman’s mother, a famous retired opera singer named Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). A skeptic by nature, Poirot quickly susses out some of the tricks of the seance, including a typewriter operated by remote. Not long after the seance breaks up, Poirot is attacked, and soon after, someone is killed, impaled on a sculpture. With a lineup of suspects including the dead daughter’s former fiance (Kyle Allen), the medium’s assistants (Emma Laird and Ali Khan), a nun-turned-housekeeper (Camille Cottin) and a shell-shocked doctor (Jamie Dornan) and his son (Jude Hill), Poirot is also faced with an increasing number of difficult to explain phenomena including ghostly voices and apparitions.
Overall, A Haunting in Venice is a fine return to form for Branagh and Poirot after a somewhat disappointing outing on the Nile. By limiting the locations to the natural splendor of the city and the gorgeous “haunted” palazzo which serves as the film’s centerpiece, the film is able to avoid the abominable CGI work that ruined much of the early going of Death on the Nile. Michael Green, the screenwriter of all three films, does an excellent job here working post-World War II trauma into the story, most obviously in the story of the doctor and his son, but also more figuratively into the tone of the whole piece and the world-weary attitude of Poirot himself. Branagh also makes some interesting and unexpected shooting decisions here. While his films are always competently made, they are rarely flashy. But A Haunting in Venice is well-served by a bolder style. Branagh shoots it like a horror film, with odd angles, use of fisheye lenses and varying camera speeds. This, along with flourishes such as a literal dark and stormy night, a wonderfully creepy shadow play early in the film, and a number of jump scares really make it stand out from the style of its predecessors. The film has an excellent classical spooky atmosphere.
The performances are a mixed-bag overall. Allen is a bit too wooden and stereotypically menacing. Fey, seemingly inspired by a Dorothy Parker-type attitude, never quite feels right in this period piece. And Yeoh, in what is essentially a glorified cameo, gives a possession/seance performance that is unfortunately almost laughably over-the-top. But balancing this is excellent work from Cottin, who has to balance religious fervor with guilt and shame. Also very good is Dornan, who has to bring real pain to a role that could have been easily overacted. Of course, the main draw of the series is Branagh himself. Over the course of the three films, what began as a vague sadness for Poirot over a lost love has transformed into a defeated depression as he sees more and more what evil lurks in the hearts of the people he investigates. The lightness from the early scenes of Murder on the Orient Express, of a detective excited by cakes and his own cleverness – a fastidious man who wears a mustache holder to bed, has mostly dissipated. When Poirot’s worldview is challenged in this film by the seemingly supernatural, Branagh expertly plays the genuine fear this puts into Poirot’s mind. As a long-time fan of Branagh’s work, I would be happy to see him continue the Poirot films for as long as he’d like to. It’s a character he obviously enjoys, and one he’s very good at bringing to life.
While not a perfect film, A Haunting in Venice is very good, and an excellent segue into the Halloween season, with a genuinely creepy feel. Worth seeking out for fans of the series, or those who enjoy a good ghost story.
A Haunting in Venice is in theaters now