A HAUNTING IN VENICE
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
It’s almost October, so some of the biggest genre franchises are returning: The Conjuring Universe, The Exorcist and Saw. Then there’s the latest Poirot film, which unexpectedly combines a whodunit with horror – heck, the first time I saw the trailer, I laughed as his signature moustache faded into the shot. And yet, against the odds, A Haunting In Venice is Branagh’s best outing by some distance, as both series lead and director. It’s an unexpected treat for viewers wanting to get their little grey cells going.
Of course, Poirot isn’t keen at first. With his incarnation, Branagh seems determined to suck all the joy from the character, who’d ideally just be minding his vegetables and living a reclusive life in the titular Italian City having cakes for cases. That’s until his friend Ariadne Oliver shows up on Halloween to take him to a séance night so she can hopefully gather material for her next book – following dwindling sales. They go to a palazzo with a fittingly dark past, where medium Joyce Reynolds will help a grieving mother, Rowena Drake, communicate with her daughter, who appeared to commit suicide. Joining them for this are a range of family and staff, including- (among others) a creepy kid, a war vet with PTSD and a pious housekeeper. As they attempt to get to the bottom of a months-old tragedy, a new body appears. Poirot locks the door, insisting it’s a crime scene so nobody can leave. However, is it just them inside?
Thus far, I’ve not gotten on with this incarnation of Poirot. I disliked how previous outings prioritised Poirot as a person over the puzzle element, meaning their mysteries had very little depth. I also wasn’t a fan of how his take on the great detective downplayed his unique aspects and eccentricities, making him a much less exciting lead. Where previous incarnations are overweight, unfit, asexual and almost psychopathically in his element with a case, Branagh plays him as a combat-ready, womanising genius mentally scarred by his experiences on the battlefield. A Haunting in Venice thankfully dropped Poirot being an action hero, but goes for more of the same annoyingly vague personal demons and sad eyes. Especially in the third act, where far too much time is spent on his mental state and not enough on the more interesting matter of the killer(s). Yet this time, the whodunit is still better developed than before, leading to an often intriguing investigation in a fantastic location.
Initially, I was put off by the trailer, making it look more like a second-rate Blumhouse flick. Yet the Dame herself dabbled in the supernatural and could do a good fireplace ghost story when she wanted to. Here, the horror elements work very well. The atmosphere is excellent, with the mist, masks and storms of Halloween in Venice creating the perfect backdrop to a sometimes chilling story. It’s enjoyably spooky and fully uses the unnerving Gothic setting. The séance scene is an early standout, with Yeoh bringing demented energy to the possession. There aren’t many big scares (this is a detective film with horror elements rather than the other way around), and those we get are quite tame – ecen for a 12A. But Branagh knows how to keep an audience worried about where the next will come from. One of the film’s big themes is faith and the question of whether we are part of something bigger. Branagh perfectly conjures up the feeling that anything can happen and supernatural forces may be at work. I loved the use of silence throughout – where we get a score, it’s often subtle – save for the obligatory string-heavy crescendos. But the moments that really stuck with me were when we could hear every creek, and even the rustle of popcorn several rows away was a distraction.
As another major plus, the cast is probably the best ensemble the franchise has had so far: Jamie Dornan, Kelly Reilly, Kyle Allen. Not necessarily on paper – it’d be difficult to top the star power of Murder on the Orient Express. But this time, they’re far less showy and theatrical. Death on the Nile, in particular, had moments of pastiche – when the performers almost seemed to be winking at us. Whereas with A Haunting in Venice, we have an ensemble who can lose themselves in the role, and dial back the often campy or twee tone of Christie’s work to deliver something more sombre. Almost all of them struggle with the aftermath of World War Two, and as much as the film has fun with vintage haunted house tropes, it treats their trauma with empathy. There are no moments where you almost expect an announcer to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Gal Gadot.” The only weak link for me was Tina Fey: a good actor badly miscast as Christie’s author insert Ariadne Oliver. But then, I also don’t think the script is especially faithful to her character anyway.
On that point, where other entries have strayed from their books, this completely rips its one up. In some ways, I think this is a good thing since the original novel is too complex and busy for a 100-minute movie. However, when deviating from it, A Haunting In Venice makes many of the same mistakes as its predecessors. I won’t go into specifics at all. But while the motivation itself was interesting, most of the clues come from terrible decision-making. Christie was a master of plotting, knowing that everything had to be accounted for. Yet the streamlined narrative of A Haunting in Venice necessitates the suspects, and indeed culprit(s), behave in ways that allow Poirot to piece things together quickly in a rushed reveal that comes from nowhere. What should have been an ‘aha’ moment passes more as an ‘oh, okay.’ Still, save for one clue requiring viewers to have specialised knowledge, it plays fair and is potentially solvable – I can also see it benefitting from a second viewing. And unlike the last two, I can see myself going back to this one. Congrats, Branagh, you’ve solved how to make this series work well.