WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
A Haunting in Venice – Your basic poltergeist procedural
Kenneth Branagh’s latest all-star Hercule Poirot whodunnit is a big-budget episode of Murder She Wrote that’ll have you home in time for tea and Belgian chocolates.
The world of cinema owes debts to some filmmakers, and Kenneth Branagh is one of them. While much of Hollywood is obsessing about uncanny valley special effects or blowing stuff up, Branagh is providing us with some good old-fashioned murder mysteries.
A Haunting in Venice is Branagh’s third adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel (this time 1969’s Hallowe’en Party) featuring enigmatic Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and once more brings together an ensemble of the film industry’s leading lights.
It’s a pleasure to see throwback-style movies such as these being made, and while A Haunting in Venice doesn’t yield any surprises, it delivers on its obligations with commitment and style.
This time around, Poirot (played by Branagh) is enjoying his retirement/self-imposed exile in the titular city following the events of the previous film Death on the Nile, disinclined towards solving any more cases.
However, Poirot’s peace is perforated by the appearance of long-time acquaintance and mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) who seeks his help to expose the con artistry of renowned psychic Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) during one of her séances.
Said séance is part of a Halloween party hosted by opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who is desperate to make contact with the soul of her departed daughter, and the event is attended by several friends and confidants.
But what starts as an evening of celebration and scepticism is disrupted by death, and it’s up to Poirot to uncover the truth while grappling with his own ghosts.
Also lurking in the shadows is a star-studded cast featuring Jamie Dornan, Camille Cottin, Jude Hill, Kyle Allen, Emma Laird and Riccardo Scamarcio.
Looking at all three of Branagh’s Poirot films in succession, one can perceive the evolution of the franchise and its tone.
A Haunting in Venice takes the melodramatics of Agatha Christie’s novels to their logical endpoint. As a result, the film is much camper than its predecessors. How camp? Let’s just say if Branagh had decided to shoot this murder mystery in monochrome, I would not have batted an eyelid.
This is not a criticism, nor a point against the film.
Every actor clearly understood the brief, and judging by the editing and camerawork, it’s a direction that Branagh has decided to embrace.
The plot also embraces its extremely traditional whodunnit structure, namely a big creaky house playing host to various suspicious strangers, all undergoing interrogation by the charismatic detective, with a big reveal at the end.
At the same time, Branagh’s cinematography choices are working flat-out to emphasise the horror elements of the setting and story. Close-ups here, fisheye lens there, establishing shots of Venice canals and brick walls, plus gargoyles everywhere.
But alas, A Haunting in Venice is not scary. It barely borders on unnerving.
Those establishing shots also telegraph the film’s problem with pacing – something it shares with 2022’s Death on the Nile. The first third of the runtime is drawn out. Normally, this would be the time to dive headfirst into our lead players and explore their backstories, but much of that is mumbled, hastened and sidelined in its delivery here.
To be fair, these films are not the kind where you relate to or sympathise with the characters, but it would be nice to see more of their teased colourful facets.
Nevertheless, Poirot, Oliver and Reynolds get the lion’s share of screen time, and Reynolds’ demeanour serves as a fabulous counter to Poirot’s stoicism. Their interactions are a highlight of the movie.
More than that, Michelle Yeoh’s screen presence surpasses even Branagh’s. She is captivating throughout, and her performance spotlights talent the industry should’ve been paying more attention to for years.
Meanwhile, Tina Fey is herself: snarky and not for everyone (and apparently playing her same character from Only Murders in the Building). The rest of the cast delivers the goods, with standouts being Jude Hill and Kyle Allen. Hill is especially impressive given his young age.
Once the “haunting” happens in A Haunting in Venice, we’re off to the races and the audience gets precisely what they paid the price of admission for.
This is a franchise uninterested in originality or genre deconstruction (unlike, say, Rian Johnson’s Benoit Blanc films), and is instead content with being a big-budget episode of Murder She Wrote. That said, the latest movie does progress Hercule Poirot’s personal arc, which has played out across all of Branagh’s adaptations, and, like Christie’s melodramatics, it reaches a logical endpoint.
There’s little to rave about when it comes to A Haunting in Venice, but also little to truly take issue with. The plot and its twists are at this point established, but they remain engaging enough. The characters are over the top, but they’re still interesting.
Ultimately, Poirot points his finger, everyone gasps and we find out who did it.
Ranked among its peers, A Haunting in Venice doesn’t deliver the same tension as 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, but Branagh is committed to making his Poirot movies.
Let’s not ever be haunted by the ghost of dead genres. DM
This story was first published on Pfangirl.com
A Haunting in Venice is currently screening in South African cinemas.