A Haunting in Venice
Leaning into gothic horror in this Halloween-set murder-mystery, Kenneth Branagh's Poirot movies get their best instalment yet.
September 14, 2023
Poirot goes horror in A Haunting in Venice. As unsettling as it was in its pointlessness and indulgence, Death on the Nile's moustache origin story doesn't quite count as doing the same. With Kenneth Branagh (Belfast) back directing, producing and starring as the hirsute Belgian sleuth for the third time — 2017's Murder on the Orient Express came first — Agatha Christie's famous detective now gets steeped in gothic touches and also scores the best outing yet under his guidance. The source material: the acclaimed mystery writer's 1969 novel Hallowe'en Party. Returning screenwriter Michael Green (Jungle Cruise) has given the book more than a few twists, the canal-lined Italian setting being one. Venice makes an atmospheric locale, especially on October 31, in the post-World War II era and amid a dark storm. But perhaps the most important move that A Haunting in Venice makes is Branagh reining in the showboating that became so grating in his first two Poirot movies.
Even if you've never read Christie's work or seen Poirot on the screen before, three details have become as widely known as the figure's existence: he's a detective, he's eccentric and, to the benefit of solving cases upon cases, he's obsessive. Thankfully, three also seems to be the magic number in letting the investigator's quirks feel lived in during his current cinema run, rather than constantly overemphasising every idiosyncrasy. Both A Haunting in Venice and Branagh's performance are all the better for that choice. When not just puzzling but also spooking is on offer, such a shift is essential, allowing bumps, jumps and eeriness to set the mood and style over an overdone central portrayal. Branagh is helming a haunted-house story this time around, after all — and while ghost tales need people to torment, overblown identities shouldn't be the most disquieting thing about them. He's also made a picture about grief and trauma, two experiences that change personalities.
In relocating to the sinking island city and withdrawing from the whodunnit game, his new status quo when the film begins, A Haunting in Venice's Poirot has already done his own toning down. It's 1947, a decade after the events seen in A Death on the Nile, and bodyguard Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio, The Translators) helps keep life quiet by sending away everyone who seeks the sleuth's help. The exception: Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, Only Murders in the Building), a Christie surrogate who is not only also a celebrated author, but writes crime fiction based on Poirot (with Fey slipping into her shoes, she's a playful source of humour, too). When the scribe comes a-knocking, it's with an invite to a séance, where she's hoping that her pal will help her to discredit the medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once), who has the town talking.
The supernatural isn't Poirot's thing, unsurprisingly. Usually, that applies to the stories that he's in and his perspective. But Ariadne herself is starting to be convinced that Joyce might be the real deal, as she explains while persuading her friend into assisting. In A Haunting in Venice, belief isn't much Poirot's thing either — although unnerving visions do begin lingering in his view. As much as Branagh, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (another veteran of the first two pictures), composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (an Oscar-winner for Joker) and editor Lucy Donaldson (The Midnight Club) have fun diving into horror, and they do, embracing the occult was never going to be on the cards for movie's main character. Instead, getting his mystery-solving mojo back is part of the predictable plot; more than in Branagh's past two Poirot flicks, A Haunting in Venice feels comfortable rather than inert in its formula.
From that setup, the film unfurls over one night and in a sole spot: a grand yet crumbling palazzo. The building was previously an orphanage where many kids met their death and has seen other folks follow them since, with local legend chalking up the abode's misfortunes to "the children's vendetta". Ex-opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly, Yellowstone) now owns the structure — and it's her daughter Alicia's (feature debutant Rowan Robinson) passing that's inspired her to enlist Reynolds' services. Count her among the suspects when a body shows up, alongside Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan, The Tourist), Drake's family doctor; Leopold (Jude Hill, Branagh's Belfast breakout), his precocious son; Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin, Call My Agent!), the mansion's housemaid; Desdemona and Nicholas Holland (The Crowded Room's Emma Laird and Everyone Else Burns' Ali Khan), brother-and-sister war refugees; and Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen, West Side Story), Alicia's American former fiancé.
The expected Poirot template still dictates A Haunting in Venice's basics; few deductive skills are needed to see why Hallowe'en Party's name and city were changed to fit the franchise's mould, for instance. So, murders occur, fingers are pointed, everyone has a motive and the movie's main man gives his brain a workout. Also, getting the pool of accused jostling — and the actors playing them, of course — remains as baked into the feature as in its predecessors. This rogues' gallery makes a finer job of it than the past talents in the same position with Branagh. They're more cohesive as a group, and even as well. Fey sparkles with acerbic wit, Yeoh is confidently serene, Cottin frays nervily, Laird is a picture of unease, and having Dornan and Hill play father and son again after Belfast is a nice touch. With Branagh bringing more nuance to his role than ever, his co-stars never feel like they're being thrust into the shadows by their director and lead.
There's zero subtlety in the filmmaking, though, nor should there be in a gleeful gothic-horror spin on Poirot. Cue a wealth of visual flourishes that convey a murder-mystery with purposefully disorientating excess — and shine. Thanks to Venice, the horror genre's fans will already be thinking about 70s great Don't Look Now, which arrived in cinemas before that decade's Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. Spotting odes to Italian giallo master Dario Argento are easy to find, too. Close ups, tilted angles, wide-angle shots, leaping from high to low perspectives, tight focus, making the utmost of the Venetian architecture: they all add to the macabre-and-loving-it air. They also boost a much-needed point of difference in these whodunnit-heavy times. Branagh's flicks have been outshone comically by everything from Knives Out and its sequel to the small screen's Only Murders in the Building and The Afterparty, so getting creepy proves a successful way of fending off their spirits; fittingly, it's a canny trick and enough of a treat.
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