Actor/writer/director Kenneth Branagh is no stranger to adaptations, having made a series of remarkable William Shakespeare films (as well-known as Henry V (1989) to a lesser-known Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)). In recent years, Branagh has turned to renowned mystery writer Agatha Christie, with films Murder on the Orient Express (2017), then Death on the Nile (2022), and, now, A Haunting in Venice, each centered on her famous detective Hercule Poirot. His latest, inspired by Christie’s Halloween Party, is his darkest and most intriguing yet, maintaining the “bottle” structure that keeps the narrative contained while integrating a great deal of emotional heft via period and character work. With their third Poirot feature, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green are well aware the audience is going looking for clues and are smart enough to still stay several steps ahead, resulting in a mystery that’s as thrilling in the journey as it is in the discovery.
Venice, Halloween Day, 1947: Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is retired, spending his days avoiding new cases and enjoying freshly made pastries. That is, until an old friend in mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tiny Fey) arrives on his doorstep, inciting his curiosity with an invitation to join her for a séance that very evening at a reportedly haunted palazzo in which an infamous medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), will do a reading for aggrieved mother Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). With guests gathered, Poirot, Oliver, and Drake’s guests all sit for the presentation, only for the unexplainable to occur. Struggling with his own ghosts, can Poirot see through to identify the killer or will it all be chalked up to the supernatural?
Coming off of Death on the Nile, the gothic vibe in A Haunting in Venice makes a great deal of sense. In the former, Death is dripping with decadence, the 1937-set film evokes joy and pleasure before the murder, maintaining its visual brightness and luxuriousness after. The Green script does give Poirot a newly-developed backstory, specifically placing him as a former veteran of World War I, his moustache a persistent covering for a facial wound sustained in battle. In Death, he also lost his friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman), a victim of the killer’s greed. Now, 10 years later, Poirot is retired and a tad lost. Even if the opening moments of the film weren’t filled with one Dutch angle after another, implying a lack of balance and anxiety, Poirot himself spends his free time on the roof of his apartment, itself fenced in, his table and chairs residing inside a birdcage-like structure. The production design is screaming to the audience that in his retirement, Poirot has placed himself into a prison and it’s this notion that feeds much of the tension throughout the film. Though his friend Ariadne does pick on him for retiring, often verbally poking him to become the man he once was, the script is keen to explore Poirot as a person whose life of solving one heinous crime after another, combined with his own history of war *and* existing in a post-World War II Europe; this is a Poirot whose worldview is shaken. Considering how frequently the resolution of the mystery revolves around Poirot’s intellectual abilities, having him already mentally clouded is a smart move, enabling the later unsettling moments to raise the tension naturally, creating a sense that perhaps, this time, the detective might be in over his head.
Impressively, certainly moreso than Death, the production design and technical approach to the story are where much of the disquiet of Venice comes in. In particular, there’s an argument to be made that Venice itself is as much a character as any other. Venice is a city that rests upon canals, as well as open water, a place that the ocean will one day reclaim. If the cage Poirot sits in doesn’t communicate that he’s given up on going anywhere, consider that he’s moved to a city that’s at the mercy of construction and mother nature. Going further, the building, the palazzo, where the séance takes place at, is unkept and falling apart, a by-product of many factors explored in the film, most of which are tired to its history during World War I, a history which has given birth to a legend of children seeking vengeance on those who failed their commission to do no harm. Many of the shots within the palazzo are either angled (to continue a sense of anxiety) or in close-up (so that our focus is on the characters and their reactions to circumstance), and each one captures their location and its condition: maintained in some places, a leaky mess in the other. As shown in the marketing materials, a storm forms outside, creating a sense that the mystery Poirot seeks to solve may be washed away at any time, itself setting a different clock than the one the detective sets for the guests. Death comes for us all, Venice seems to say. Will you be ready?
So much of the success of the film comes down to the fact that there are several moments in which it’s clear that Branagh and Green, in their adaptation of the story, make sure to leave things for the audience to notice all while keeping much of the magic hidden. By signing up for a Poirot mystery, and this being the third film, there’s a certain rhythm to the structure — the opening, the introduction of the ensemble, the triggering event, the search, and the resolution — so there comes a point where, in order to stay ahead of the audience, you’ve got to give them a little something. When the script does, one can feel like the cat who caught the canary, making the audience feel like Poirot’s silent cohort. However, like always, even when the facts are before us, the assemblage of them is where the film gets exciting, and the delivery is made all the more impactful because (a) the film is focused on the emotions of the characters as much as the mystery, (b) Branagh has transformed Poirot into a person here, separate from the legend, and (c) the connective tissue is developed in such a way as to result in this feeling like a lightning strike.
As with the previous films, Venice is an ensemble piece and everyone gets a moment to shine. One’s may be smaller in size than another’s, but there’s no small parts here as, to be expected, each member of the cast plays a vital role in not just the murder mystery, but in the larger exploration of themes. Fans of Branagh’s Belfast (2021) will enjoy Jamie Dornan (Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar) and Jude Hill’s reunion as they, once more, play father and son, though their scenes together are brief, they are each up to the task of giving them impact. Camille Cottin (Soul; Stillwater) creates an unexpected emotional center to the film, while Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes) convincingly conveys the elegance of an opera singer and the devastation of a mother’s loss. The surprises in the film come from Kyle Allen (The Map of Tiny Perfect Things), Emma Laird (From Life), and Ali Khan (6 Underground), each creating a grounding for the supernatural elements that run throughout. For her part, Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once) is magnetic, presenting a character who can go toe-to-toe with Poirot without flinching, creating a sense of uncertainty for the audience regarding her authenticity — a necessity for a thriller of this type.
The main problem, if you will, is that the film may not play as easily on follow-up viewings. The thrills are there, the jump scares, the intrigue, but whereas modern mysteries like the Knives Out films or See How They Run (2022) (each one owing a great debt to Christie) possess elements that make repeat viewings just as delightful if not moreso, the dourness of Venice may preclude audiences from investing additional time. That said, A Haunting in Venice lives up to the title so well that those looking for some gentler horror may have found something to rotate in during spooky season.
In theaters September 15th, 2023.
For more information, head to the 20th Century Studio A Haunting in Venice webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.