The director-star’s newest effort proves the best of his Hercule Poirot mysteries.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
The first two entries in director/actor Kenneth Branagh’s foray into Agatha Christie adaptation lost the magic of the English writer’s mysteries. With his third attempt, A Haunting in Venice, Branagh decides to make considerable changes to the story. Using the bones of Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, writer Michael Green changes the setting from a small town in the English countryside to a palazzo in Venice. Branagh emphasizes the gothic elements of Christie’s story, leaning on the horror of the location, the manic nature of the children’s Halloween party, and the gruesome moments before and after an unexpected death.
In this retelling, Poirot (Branagh) remains retired, brought out of hiding by his friend and mystery author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey). He takes on the voices inside of a haunted house, the death of a young woman, and a famous medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), trying to contact the victim through a seance. A twisty story, A Haunting in Venice emphasizes the faculty of Poirot, his aging disposition, and his overconfidence. He aims to find reason amongst the unreasonable, truth amidst the supernatural.
Branagh and his frequent cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shoot the characters from lopsided angles. They place the camera diagonally, cutting off actor’s ears, noses, the tops of their heads, the majority of their necks. Everything is intentionally scattershot, creating an air of confusion, a sense of half-knowing. Each person hides a secret from Poirot and the others, and the camera choices back that up without reprieve.
The film succeeds due to these more unabashed directorial and script choices, along with strong performances from a game cast. Branagh returns, with his nondescript European accent, as the self-serious detective. Fey seems happy to join in the fun, while Yeoh makes great hay of limited screen time. Everyone’s in on the bit. Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill reunite as father and son from their time on Belfast, and Kelly Reilly hops in as the mother of the deceased, the thrower of the party, and the owner of a crumbling palazzo. It’s a big cast of shady characters played by actors willing to have fun with the dialogue, surprises, and melodrama.
The mystery-horror film captures something that Branagh’s other adaptations were missing: as genius as Hercule Poirot might be, he is a silly man. Branagh finally grasps a larger portion of the Belgian detective’s personality. Poirot walks around in his own mind, spouting ideas that only he can understand. He calls himself “Papa Poirot” for some odd reason when trying to coax information out of someone. The Belgian detective cannot be mistaken for anyone else. Christie’s books, of which I’m a massive fan, contain an inherent winking at the audience, an understanding that these stories aren’t always realistic. They have a heightened sense of drama, which Branagh finds and wields in A Haunting in Venice.
[A Haunting in Venice]’s the best that [Branagh]’s been as the famous detective.
It helps that the movie has a few jump scares, timely matched to a companion score by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. Her music fills the scenes with dread, almost old-world evils that supposedly haunt the walls of this overrun palazzo. And the fact that all of these scares surround Poirot himself further adds to the film’s intelligence. Branagh looks understandably shaky as Poirot, a man who has lost his touch. A look of near-sadness fills the actor’s face as he tries to solve the murder from the film’s first act. It’s the best that he’s been as the famous detective.
A Haunting in Venice might not be the best Hercule Poirot adaptation or the best Branagh film, but it’s a fun time at the movies. It allows the audience to laugh and gasp at the screen with fans of Christie, this terrific ensemble, and the murder mystery genre. In that regard, Branagh’s Poirot solves the case on the third try.
A Haunting in Venice rattles its chains in theatres starting September 15.