Like Agatha Christie herself, Kenneth Branagh found a reliable formula for mysteries. In his two previous adaptations of Christie novels, he directed and played the cerebral detective Hercule Poirot amid a star-filled cast, in an exotic location with at least one killer on the loose. Murder on the Orient Express (2017), with Michelle Pfeiffer and Johnny Depp, had an enjoyably retro, over-the-top style. Death on the Nile (2022) was a bit less starry and diverting.
Now, A Haunting in Venice sets a definite pattern of diminishing returns. The new film is much pokier in its pacing, with duller characters. Despite some highlights, including Branagh in top form as an even more somber than usual Poirot, the film is watchable but it is also something lethal to a mystery: uninvolving.
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The story takes place in 1947 and is very loosely based on a lesser-known, late-career Christie novel, Hallowe’en Party (1969), altering the plot, changing existing characters and adding new ones. And it shifts Christie’s English country-house location to Venice, where Poirot has retired and putters around his rooftop garden. His old friend, the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver, arrives, solidly played by Tina Fey in ’40s-era sharp-tongued American mode, as if she’s channeling Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Ariadne entices Poirot to come to a Halloween seance in a supposedly haunted palazzo, to expose a clairvoyant she is certain is a charlatan. Michelle Yeoh, always a delight to see, plays the medium, and at one point is spun around wildly like a woman possessed. But lower your expectations: She has a much smaller role than the trailer suggests.
Lower your expectations for Venice, too. The change of location should have worked great, playing right into the formula. The film opens with promising, skewed angles on the city, and there are a few outdoor scenes at the end. But most of it takes place in the gloomy palazzo, more clichéd than spooky, with shadowy staircases inside and a canal out there conveniently located for drowning. The interiors are actually a set in Pinewood Studios, with a production design of drab colors, shot with a muddy look.
The palazzo, once an orphanage, is owned by a famous opera singer, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly, far from her role as Beth in Yellowstone). She wants the medium to contact her daughter, who was so heartbroken when her fiancé jilted her that she jumped into the canal. The screenplay, by Michael Green, who also wrote the previous Branagh Poirots, creates a merely serviceable plot and mystery around this idea. The legend that the palazzo is haunted by the ghosts of children locked in and left to die centuries before is more of a nod to ghost stories than a recurring theme. The question of whether Poirot might abandon logic and be convinced that ghosts exist crops up half-heartedly.
In typical Christie mode, the suspects gather together, including the caddish ex-fiancé (Kyle Allen) and Poirot’s Italian bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio). Jamie Dornan, who starred as the father in Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast, plays a doctor with PTSD, and Jude Hill, the child who played the young Branagh character there, is his precocious son here. Hill is a genuine talent, a vivid presence onscreen. And Camille Cottin (Call My Agent) brings fierce conviction to the role of Rowena’s housekeeper, who used to be a nun. Cottin stands out because so many in the large cast seem to be sleepwalking through it all.
That doesn’t apply to Branagh, who has always been a perfect fit for the hammy character of Poirot. In each of his Christie films, Branagh brings depth and backstory to the person behind the mustache, with his dark view of humanity. In Venice, more than ever, he seems a touching, lonely figure.
But depth of character is not the point in this mystery. Of course Poirot eventually says, “No one shall leave until I find who killed her!” and later describes exactly who and what caused multiple deaths. His revelations are not especially surprising, though. As any mystery fan knows, the supposedly least likely suspect is often the killer, and the unsuspenseful Haunting in Venice doesn’t do much to undermine that guess.
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