“A Haunting in Venice review: Kenneth Branagh conjures his best Poirot film yet.”

Branagh reprises his role as Agatha Christie’s beloved detective for the third time in this supernatural thriller.
While Kenneth Branagh’s first two portrayals of Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot were classic murder mysteries, “A Haunting in Venice” is, as the title suggests, unmistakably a ghost story.

The slight shift in tone and genre, leaning into the supernatural elements of the storytelling, does wonders for Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot, elevating the movie beyond the solid, if somewhat bland entertainment of the first two films. Moreover, 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 — portrayed once again by Branagh, complete with his thick Belgian accent and piercing blue eyes that seem to discern all wrongdoing — has retired and now resides in Venice, adamantly refusing to take on another case. Consequently, he assumes a somewhat subdued role in the narrative, allowing him to focus on what he does best: solving murders. There are no convoluted backstories or origin tales for his mustache; instead, Branagh embodies Poirot with an affection and familiarity that comes from his third portrayal of the character, akin to donning a favorite sweater.

When an old acquaintance, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), pays Poirot a visit, she extends an invitation for him to join her at a Halloween party and séance hosted at the Palazzo of renowned opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). Several months earlier, Rowena’s daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), tragically died by suicide, jumping from the balcony into the canal below. Hoping to communicate with her daughter’s spirit, Rowena enlists the help of renowned medium Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). However, as the evening unfolds, the séance takes a sinister turn, and the ensemble — which includes housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), traumatized doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), his insightful son Leopold (Jude Hill), and Reynolds’ assistant Desdemona (Emma Laird) — finds themselves trapped in a house filled with chilling horrors.

Branagh, in collaboration with cinematographer and frequent partner Haris Zambarloukos, reimagines the Palazzo as a peculiar haunted mansion, employing angled shots to reflect the disconcerting state of Poirot’s psyche. Unlike the opulent settings showcased in Orient Express and Nile, Zambarloukos adopts a more inventive approach here, utilizing fish-eye lenses, tilted frames, darkness, shadow play, and extreme high and low angles to immerse the audience in this eerie atmosphere.

Poirot and the audience are constantly kept in suspense, unsure whether the events unfolding are real or mere figments of imagination. Much of the film revolves around the enduring allure of ghost stories and the psychology behind why we choose to believe in them. The meticulous design, spanning from cinematography to art direction, amplifies this sense of supernatural unease. While we typically rely on Poirot to provide rational explanations for mysteries, what occurs when even he is unable to do so? This dilemma lies at the heart of the narrative, portraying a spectral battle between Poirot’s logical deductions and the inherently human, irrational vulnerabilities of loss, greed, obsession, and the inexplicable.

Branagh leads a formidable ensemble cast in the film. Yeoh delivers a compelling performance as Ms. Reynolds, portraying her as both a shrewd businesswoman and a figure steeped in mysticism, leaving the audience uncertain of her true motives. Cottin, although lesser-known to American viewers, brings depth to her character with an inscrutable demeanor that conceals a compassionate nature beneath her stern exterior.

Fey delivers one of her most compelling performances in recent years. Departing from her usual comedic roles, she portrays a fictionalized version of Agatha Christie as the character Ariadne Oliver. As Oliver, Fey brings a lively and unpredictable energy to the screen, embodying the spirit of a mystery novelist who plays a key role in Poirot’s adventures. While Fey may seem an unconventional choice for a period piece, she fully immerses herself in the role, showcasing a believable transatlantic accent and seamlessly integrating into the film’s setting.

Dornan, previously showcased by Branagh in the film “Belfast,” doesn’t get as much screen time here, portraying a doctor grappling with his own struggles. However, his chemistry with Hill, who reprises the father-son dynamic with Dornan from “Belfast,” is exceptional. Their on-screen relationship is portrayed with authenticity, and Hill continues to impress as a talented actor who effortlessly commands attention in every scene. Branagh’s direction has allowed Hill to flourish as a performer, showcasing his natural talent and nurturing his growth as an actor.

 

“A Haunting in Venice” is particularly satisfying in its ability to consistently deliver surprises. While previous adaptations of Christie’s works adhered closely to the source material, “Venice” offers unexpected twists and turns, embracing jump scares and genuine moments of horror without hesitation. Although it leans more towards mystery or thriller than a traditional scary movie, the film effectively explores themes common among the greatest mystery writers. It delves into how grief, trauma, and loss can defy even the most rational minds. Ultimately, the film suggests that our choices and past experiences can haunt us more profoundly than any supernatural specter.

In addition to its thematic depth, “A Haunting in Venice” also offers plenty of entertainment value. The film’s eerie Venetian mask costumes and the suspenseful unraveling of its central mysteries contribute to a sense of fun and intrigue. With its abundant atmosphere and overall spookiness, it’s an ideal pick for a Halloween party, ensuring a thrilling and memorable viewing experience.

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