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“A Haunting in Venice” review: Kenneth Branagh scares up his best Poirot film yet

“A Haunting in Venice” review: Kenneth Branagh scares up his best Poirot film yet

While Kenneth Branagh's first two outings as Agatha Christie detective Hercule Poirot were classic murder mysteries, A Haunting in Venice is, as its name suggests, most decidedly a ghost story.

The slight shift in tone and genre, leaning into the supernatural elements of the storytelling, does wonders for Branagh's take on Poirot, elevating the movie beyond the solid, if somewhat bland entertainment of the first two films. Additionally, while Branagh tackled two of Christie's most famous works in his initial efforts, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the lesser-known 1969 novel Hallowe'en Party serves as the source material this time, with screenwriter Michael Green diverging even further from the original story. The result is something altogether more inventive, surprising, and engaging.

Poirot — played again by Branagh, with his thick Belgian accent and piercing blue eyes that seem to discern all wrongdoing — has gone into retirement, holing up in Venice and refusing to take another case. As such, he takes a bit of a backseat to the action, which leaves him to do what he does best: solve murders. There's no pesky, overwrought backstory here, no mustache origin stories. Instead, Branagh inhabits Poirot with an affection and lived-in-ness befitting of his third go with a character he can now don like a favorite sweater.

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in 20th Century Studios' A HAUNTING IN VENICE.
Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in 20th Century Studios' A HAUNTING IN VENICE.

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in 'A Haunting in Venice'

When an old acquaintance, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), visits Poirot, she invites him to attend a Halloween party and seance at the Palazzo of famed opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). Some months prior, Rowena's daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), committed suicide by jumping from the balcony into the canal below. Desperate to hear her daughter's voice, Rowena recruits famed medium Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to contact Alicia's spirit. But when the evening goes drastically wrong, the ensemble — which includes housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), shell-shocked doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), his precocious son Leopold (Belfast's Jude Hill), and Reynolds' assistant Desdemona (Emma Laird) — find themselves locked in a house that boasts all manner of horrors.

Branagh, teaming with cinematographer and frequent collaborator Haris Zambarloukos, transforms the Palazzo into an off-kilter haunted house and relies on canted angles to indicate the unbalanced state of Poirot's mind. While Orient Express and Nile were designed to showcase the opulence of their settings, here Zambarloukos is much more inventive with his shot set-ups, using fish-eye lenses, tilted frames, darkness, shadow, and severe high and low angles to thrust the audience into this unsettling world.

Poirot and, by extension, the audience are never quite sure whether what they're seeing is real or not — and much of the film is built upon the legacy of ghost stories and how and why we choose to believe them. The design, from the cinematography to the art direction, enhance this sense of supernatural unease. We trust Poirot to have an explanation for everything, but what happens when he simply does not? That's the question at the heart of the action, a ghostly war between Poirot's reliance on deduction and logic and the far more human, irrational foibles of loss, greed, obsession, and the unexplainable.

Michelle Yeoh as Mrs. Reynolds in 20th Century Studios' A HAUNTING IN VENICE
Michelle Yeoh as Mrs. Reynolds in 20th Century Studios' A HAUNTING IN VENICE

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios Michelle Yeoh in 'A Haunting in Venice'

Branagh leads a strong ensemble here. Yeoh is satisfyingly mercenary and chilling as Ms. Reynolds, toeing the line between canny businesswoman and purveyor of spiritualism in a way that keeps us guessing. While Cottin, largely unknown to American audiences, is inscrutable in the best way, her stern exterior belying her kindly heart.

Fey offers some of her strongest work in years. Generally, she plays a heightened version of herself, but here she is a heavily fictionalized play on Christie, a mystery novelist responsible for Poirot's fame. As Oliver, she is spritely, a tad vain, and a mercurial presence that keeps Poirot and the audience on their toes. At first glance, Fey seems an odd fit for a period piece; she's so firmly associated with a specific brand of modern comedy. But she sinks into the world with gusto, complete with a believable, delightful transatlantic accent.

Dornan, who Branagh featured so exquisitely in Belfast, is a bit underused here as a doctor coming apart at the seams. But his chemistry with Hill, who reprises the father-son relationship with Dornan after Belfast, is perfection — and Hill continues to grow as a natural actor who pulls your eye straight to him in every scene. Branagh has found a real talent in the young performer and continues to mold him admirably.

'A Haunting in Venice'
'A Haunting in Venice'

20th Century Studios 'A Haunting in Venice'

Perhaps what is most satisfying about A Haunting in Venice is the ways in which it continually surprises. Where the previous Christie adaptations felt by the book, Venice startles at every turn and isn't afraid of jump scares and genuine moments of horror. It is more mystery or thriller than scary movie — and it effectively takes up the themes of the greatest mystery writers, the ways in which grief, trauma, and loss defy even the most rational of brains. The most frightening thing of all isn't the prospect of ghosts, but the ways in which our choices and our pasts haunt us more effectively than any supernatural specter could.

Amidst all this, Venice is also just a heck of a lot of fun, from its eerie Venetian mask costumes to the intriguing ways in which its central mysteries unfold. With heaps of atmosphere and a general spookiness, it's the perfect choice for a Halloween party. Grade: B

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