REVIEW: A Haunting in Venice (2023, dir. Kenneth Branagh)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 103 mins

UK Distributor: 20th Century Studios

UK Release Date: 15 September 2023

WHO’S IN A HAUNTING IN VENICE?

Kenneth Branagh, Kyle Allen, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Kelly Reilly, Rowan Robinson, Riccardo Scamarcio, Michelle Yeoh

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Kenneth Branagh (director, producer), Michael Green (writer), Mark Gordon and Judy Hofflund (producers), Hildur Guðnadóttir (composer), Haris Zambarloukos (cinematographer), Lucy Donaldson (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is invited to a séance that takes a murderous turn…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON A HAUNTING IN VENICE?

You don’t need to be a detective to figure out that Kenneth Branagh has, until now, taken a traditional approach to his portrayal of Agatha Christie’s famous moustachioed Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. Both the director/actor’s versions of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, arguably the two most famous Poirot stories in existence, stuck closely to the source material without many significant detours or alterations to the mysteries that have been in the public consciousness for nearly 100 years. The feedback for both of them was, therefore, somewhat mixed; as well-made and starrily-cast as they were, Branagh’s adaptations felt very safe in terms of conveying these familiar mystery narratives to audiences who were already familiar with all their twists and turns.

The same can’t exactly be said for A Haunting in Venice, the third and easily the strongest in Branagh’s film series. For one, the source material is that of the much lesser-known Poirot story Hallowe’en Party, which in and of itself invites curiosity as very few people aside from the most dedicated Agatha Christie completionists will know what happens in it before they see this adaptation. However, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green take a few further steps by revamping many other things about the story: the setting has been changed to Venice (it was originally a house in an English village), many of the supporting characters are significantly altered or removed entirely, and the tone and aesthetic is almost akin to a full-on horror movie. The resulting film is, by far, the least traditional that Branagh and Green have yet been with Poirot – and is all the better for it.

Their version of the story finds Branagh’s Poirot, now retired from the world of sleuthing, living in a state of exile in post-WW2 Venice, with only his bodyguard Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio) for company. His seclusion is interrupted when his friend, American mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), invites him along to a Hallowe’en party that evening at a rundown palazzo owned by former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), where a séance is due to be performed by renowned medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). She has been hired by Drake to contact the spirit of her daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who had allegedly committed suicide after a mental breakdown, but Oliver seeks Poirot’s help in exposing Reynolds as a fraud. Unfortunately, and inevitably, the night ends with a gruesome murder, leading Poirot to once again put his detective skills to work as he sifts through the suspects – from traumatised doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) to his precocious young son Leopold (Jude Hill) to Alicia’s confrontational ex-fiancé Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen) – to determine who the culprit is, and what their motive was.

Immediately, A Haunting in Venice establishes a vibe and atmosphere that’s as far away from the CG-coated landscapes of the previous films as you can get. There is a genuinely chilling underlay to the movie, even before we reach the spooky palazzo where we spend most of the film, as Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography employs a mixture of heavily-tilted Dutch angles and darkly lit shots to emphasise the unnerving and possibly supernatural mystery at its heart. It creates a truly unsettling visual experience, one that Branagh keeps consistent with a tone that remains gloomy throughout, all while keeping the focus on where it needs to be rather than filling in gaps that never needed to be filled (unlike in Death on the Nile, which opened with an extended flashback about how Poirot got his iconic moustache). Green’s script also keeps things engaging as he slowly reveals more about some of these characters, who start out as though they’re straightforward archetypes but turn out to have a lot more going on underneath and makes the central mystery compelling enough to leave you interested in what the bigger picture is.

In front of the camera, Branagh continues to be great as Poirot, though here he’s given a lot more to work with in Green’s script than just simply be the eccentric sleuth with the amusing moustache. The Poirot we get here is much more world-weary than his previous two appearances, having clearly seen things that would make anyone go into hiding as he has done here, not to mention the fact that another war has happened in between Death on the Nile and this film, so that’s an extra layer of horror applied to an already haunted man. It’s interesting to see Poirot be so cynical and dismissive of what’s right in front of his eyes, or at least more so than usual, which gives new dimensions to this character that make him far more compelling than simply relying on Branagh’s weighty screen presence.

The rest of the cast certainly isn’t filled with as many stars as the previous Poirot films, but there are still some standout turns that are worthy of the A-list. Tina Fey exhibits some fun screwball energy as Ariadne Oliver and underplays her usual comedic prowess, in favour of a more subdued type of performance that it’d be cool to see her play more often in future roles. Meanwhile, you have Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, co-stars of Branagh’s Oscar-winning Belfast, delivering a pair of committed turns in an amusing but also heartbreaking reversal of the traditional father-son relationship, though it is young Hill who leaves a bigger impression as the kind of child-who-speaks-like-an-adult character who, refreshingly, doesn’t get annoying after a short while. Finally, while she doesn’t have quite as much screentime as her fellow actors, Michelle Yeoh has a couple of noteworthy moments that perfectly play into the creepy nature of the story (though a part of me likes to think that this character is just another multiversal incarnation of Evelyn Wang from Everything Everywhere All At Once, one that hails from a murder-mystery universe where she may or may not happen to have psychic abilities).

As for the horror aspect of A Haunting in Venice, the film clearly knows how to deliver the right number of jump-scares and musical stingers (courtesy of Joker composer Hildur Guðnadóttir) to create an engagingly spooky aesthetic. While it never becomes truly scary, which might make it feel somewhat light for fans of hardcore horror, Branagh is a talented enough filmmaker to take some of these familiar tricks and work them into the narrative without feeling as though they’ve been put in for a cheap scare. Without going into too much detail about the plot, there are supernatural elements which are effectively executed and do leave you a bit more on edge than your average Poirot thriller, although a couple of the explanations behind some of these elements are a little underwhelming. Even still, Branagh does well to establish a rather sinister tone, to where you almost want to see him actually make a straight-up horror film one of these days (or, at the very least, one that’s better than what he did with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).

Of Branagh’s Poirot movies, A Haunting in Venice is by far the best one yet, for even though it’s not without some faults it still manages to think a bit more outside the box and play around with obscure stories and different genres to tell a compelling and entertaining mystery that doesn’t feel like you’ve solved it all before.

SO, TO SUM UP…

A Haunting in Venice is the strongest yet in director/actor Kenneth Branagh’s series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot adaptations, leaning into a refreshing horror tone that the filmmaker executes engagingly, and along with a committed ensemble cast leads the charge as a different kind of Poirot than we’re used to seeing from the actor.

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