Kenneth Branagh’s adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, where he directed and played Agatha Christie’s brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, were decent old-school murder mysteries. For both, he assembled an all-star cast in a single location (first a train, then a boat) and allowed them to carry most of the heavy lifting in the entertainment department while he did all the plot stuff. They were mildly enjoyable. For this third entry, A Haunting in Venice (based on Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe'en Party), he actually changes the formula. The focus is not on the cast, which is good, if not necessarily headline grabbing this time. Instead, it is on mood.
Though there is a murder, and Poirot decides to solve it, A Haunting in Venice (98 minutes, minus the end credits), as the title implies, is more of a ghost story. It is also far more about what it is costing Poirot to investigate this, on a personal level. Whether it is a literal ghost or the ghosts of the past doing the haunting is for Poirot to discover. Branagh emphasizes tone, crafting a production that is surprisingly unnerving. This isn’t a great mystery, but the mixture of the series’ formula with the supernatural is effective. Branagh tries something truly different and it makes for the most compelling of his Poirot adaptations.
It is 1947 and the great Hercule Poirot has retired into isolation in Venice. Then an old friend shows up and drags him to a séance, so that he can expose a psychic as a fraud. Of course, someone is murdered, secrets are revealed and Poirot must deduce if the culprit is living or dead.
This is certainly Branagh’s best work with Poirot, both as a director and as an actor. For starters, this feels far more intimate. It really is Poirot’s story. It is quieter, not relying on the spectacle of celebrities in a beautiful location. The vast majority of it takes place in a large, dark and creepy house. What may be just outside of human comprehension is as important as the interrogations themselves. Branagh shows this with barely heard sounds, odd visions and camera angles that trap the characters with whatever they fear could be lurking inside. The style evokes ghost stories of the period (I kept thinking of 1944’s excellent The Uninvited). It is spooky because there is the chance that the impossible is real.
Poirot begins as a skeptic, yet by the end, let’s say his mind is open. The maid could have done it, but what about the myth of the vengeful children who were killed in the house? Could they be responsible? Branagh gives a very good performance as a man who has seen more than enough and is done taking himself into the darkness. He can’t help himself when a case materializes around him. Could this relight his spark? Or could it destroy him for good? Despite there being glimmers of the Poirot from the first two movies, this is clearly someone who has lost the joy of the game. This is not exciting for him anymore. There is a sadness that Branagh highlights. He isn’t a hero. We can see the pain behind his eyes. That makes him more interesting. And since he seems like a real person here, it raises the stakes.
The rest of the cast, including Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Dornan and Kelly Reilly, are solid in supporting roles. However, none of their characters are more than potential killers. They are suspects and that is it. The positive in it is that it allows Branagh to take center stage. The murder mystery may be predictable, but the mystery contained in the house is legitimately intriguing. It took Branagh three tries to find an engaging twist on the genre. A Haunting in Venice gives us something fresh, thoughtful and better than decent.
3½ out of 5
Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot
Tina Fey as Ariadne Oliver
Kelly Reilly as Rowena Drake
Michelle Yeoh as Mrs. Reynolds
Jamie Dornan as Dr. Leslie Ferrier
Jude Hill as Leopold Ferrier
Kyle Allen as Maxime Gerard
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay by Michael Green