Part of what director Kenneth Branagh has been aiming for with these Agatha Christie adaptations is giving audiences some old-fashioned mysteries in a period setting. The problem is how so many of them have been done (some rather effectively), and there’s little room left if Branagh isn’t finding more to offer beyond the large ensemble casts he can get. Of course, sometimes that’s enough. Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile were both shot on 70mm film and featured star-studded casts. That’s ideally plenty for the audience to enjoy, which is basically what happened. Both films scored decent reviews, granted ‘Murder’ was a much larger box office hit, while ‘Death’ dealt with a pandemic-related delay and… issues with several main cast members. A Haunting in Venice, however, is the best of the bunch so far. More willing to probe into the psyche of Hercule Poirot (without the need for a mustache-related origin tale) and given plenty of visually inventive ideas to work with thanks to the unique location, this whodunnit does well to make for a capable mystery/haunted house flick.
Adapted once again by Michael Green from Christie’s “Hallowe’en Party,” this time around, it’s 1947, ten years after Death on the Nile and Branagh’s world-famous detective Poirot is retired, living in Venice. Being pushed by acquaintance/author Adriadne Oliver (Tina Fey) into attending a séance during a fancy party on Halloween night, Poirot must now prove Madam Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to be a charlatan. However, wouldn’t you know it, a murder occurs late in the evening, leaving several possible suspects. Locking all the doors, Poirot must now deal with an impromptu investigation that may reveal more than just one of the living as the true culprit.
The additional horror element gives this series the kick it needed. As one who has been enjoying these films increasingly, I’m happy to see it as Branagh attempting to explore what would be interesting as both an actor and director. Murder had a couple of strong performances (Depp, in particular) and the type of scale one would want from a film of that nature. Death spent nearly half the film delivering solid character work before the mystery arrived. This time around, at a tight 100 minutes, with a smaller cast, the true joy comes from how Branagh chooses to film Venice and the Palazzo.
Given the mood and more claustrophobic nature of this film, it meant shooting digital, but the natural lighting and the jolt cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos seemed to have gotten from filming the Oscar-winning Belfast has led to a visual approach that really captures the mood of what is still a detective story, but one with some frightening undercurrents. Does that also mean Branagh’s penchant for Dutch angles is still in play? You bet it does, and this is one of the most appropriate times he could have gone for it. With so many oblique angles, one could be convinced this cast never had a flat surface to walk on. Add a constant layer of darkness, and the desire to unnerve the audience is undoubtedly apparent.
The characters also get to be on edge, which plays well to this talented group. Since Ariadne is a recurring character in the Christie stories, Fey has plenty to do, and she has the right attitude and chemistry with Branagh, which makes for solid support. Kelly Reilly, Jamie Dornan, Kyle Allen, and Belfast’s young Jude Hill have a familial connection that makes for even more uncomfortable tension, and the group all fare well here. French actress Camille Cottin and John Wick: Chapter 2’s main villain, Riccardo Scamarcio, bring some nice nuanced work as a housekeeper and Poirot’s bodyguard. And it was fun seeing Yeoh playing somewhat against type as the soothsayer.
In terms of suspects, each actor provides enough to put them in the spotlight in the right ways. I won’t pretend to say these Branagh adaptations have been tough nuts to crack regarding the final outcome, but I can appreciate how he makes the patterns of Poirot’s investigations entertaining. It once again amounts to Poirot and one or two others taking one of the suspects to some corner of the location, grilling them for a while, and repeating the process. However, with less time, fewer characters, and more attempts to scare, A Haunting in Venice can at least add various jolts and bumps in the night to mix up what occurs and how exciting it can all be.
Helping things further are the effective uses of sound design and a fittingly haunting score by Oscar-winner Hildur Guðnadóttir (Joker). Whether or not audiences felt distinct differences between the previous two films beyond the weather, it really does feel like ‘Haunting’ pushes in a much different direction.
That’s great for Branagh, too, as his Poirot is at an interesting place in his life. He served in WWI, and now we have a film that jumped past WWII, letting us know he’s more world-weary without belaboring the point (again, no mustache-themed vignette to help symbolize a character arc). That may also mean the film has less overt camp in it (though I’d still say this is a fun film with nice moments of humor), but we do get more of what’s going on in the mind of the detective than ever before, which plays nicely into the trajectory of his character through the course of the movie.
I’d still argue these modern Poirot mysteries are still missing something to push them even further over the top. They don’t necessarily need to be deconstructionist send-ups in the way filmmaker Rian Johnson has managed quite well with his Benoit Blanc films. However, these Poirot stories could be doing something more to make them feel like more than just pleasant jaunts with little reason to revisit. Whatever the case, A Haunting in Venice does deliver the strongest outing yet for the Branagh/Christie series, and it’s due to good work coming from all around. The film looks great, has some other solid additional elements, and gets you out in time just before the ghosts come calling.