Despite the relative mixed success of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, their varying styles and commitment to reviving the whodunit formula has been valiant. A Haunting in Venice takes a hard-left from the overly frothy and CGI-laden Death on the Nile and instead ventures into the supernatural territory.
Adapting Christie’s Hallowe’en Party from 1969, the film finds Hercule Poirot (Branagh) in a late-life crisis of sorts. The year is 1947, and he spends his time ducking mysteries and sipping tea at fine Venetian eateries. Enter Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), an old friend who is struggling for material for her next novel. She invites Poirot to a séance led by a psychic medium named Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once), who is trying to communicate with the late daughter of opera singer, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly, Yellowstone). Rowena believes her daughter succumbed to the ghosts that haunt her stately home, but Poirot suspects there is something more nefarious happening beneath the surface.
Screenwriter Michael Green, who penned the previous two films, relegates Poirot to being a supporting player in this story, allowing the cast of characters their time explaining their sides of the story. There’s a doctor played by Jamie Dornan, a precocious young boy played by Jude Hill (from Branagh’s Oscar-nominated film Belfast), and a handful of other players like Kyle Allen’s Maxime Gerard and Camille Cottin’s Olga Seminoff.
Keeping the production looking opulent is cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who highlights every nook and cranny of Venice, from its relaxed rivers, large iron gates, and the ancient palazzo, where we spend the most time. In contrast to the previous Branagh works, A Haunting in Venice is appropriately spooky, with dark lighting, thick shadows, and a plethora of jump scares. Too many, I’d argue, which become distracting and sometime feel as if the film is trying too hard to be a horror film.
Green’s dialog feels more like a reworking of Christie’s text, as it’s rife with lengthy conversations between the Poirot and the suspects. There’s clearly something eating at Poirot from the beginning of the film, but Green never elaborates on the clearly evident malaise that has worn out the once-tireless detective.
The mystery at the film’s core is intriguing insofar that it’s kept within arm’s length for the audience. It’s streamlined enough that you can find yourself playing along with trying to figure out the culprit, while avoiding the urge to telegraph things to the point where we arrive at an ending that fails to surprise. A Haunting in Venice doesn’t have the star-power of its predecessors, but frankly, that works to its favor, as it allows its cast to sink into their characters and the eerie setting that engulfs them. It’s a serviceable mystery, one heightened yet again by its commitment to craftsmanship despite a story that occasionally gets too talky.
NOTE: A Haunting in Venice is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Kelly Reilly, Kyle Allen, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Riccardo Scamarcio, and Michelle Yeoh. Directed by: Kenneth Branagh.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!