A HAUNTING IN VENICE ½
PG-13, 107 mins.
2023, PG-13, 107 mins.
Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot / Kyle Allen as Maxime Gerard / Camille Cottin as Olga Seminoff / Jamie Dornan as Dr Leslie Ferrier / Tina Fey as Ariadne Oliver / Jude Hill as Leopold Ferrier / Ali Khan as Nicholas Holland / Emma Laird as Desdemona Holland / Kelly Reilly as Rowena Drake / Michelle Yeoh as Joyce Reynolds / Dylan Corbett-Bader as Baker / Amir El-Masry as Alessandro Longo / Fernando Piloni as Vincenzo Di StefanoDirected by Kenneth Branagh / Written by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie
"After death comes…nothing."
So says Kenneth Branagh's heavily mustached and even more heavily Belgian-accented detective Hercule Poirot during one particularly tense exchange with a medium in A HAUNTING IN VENICE, the third in the actor/director's trilogy of films based on Agatha Christie's celebrated whodunit murder/mystery novels.
"I don't believe in psychics," he later bemoans. The medium then asks him whether or not he believes in life after death.
He concludes "I have lost my faith." She labels such assertions as sad. "Yes. It is most sad. The truth is sad," he asserts.
Poirot has most certainly seen things in his time as a sleuth (and his past participation in World War I) over the course of the last two films (2017's very good MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and its equally fine 2019 sequel in DEATH ON THE NILE) that prevent him from believing in God and, in turn, ghosts and the otherworldly. This is precisely what makes A HAUNTING IN VENICE such a uniquely compelling yarn for the detective.
Whereas his last two adventures were opulent and grandly scaled mystery thrillers, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have opted to go the spookier haunted house approach with the material with ties to the supernatural. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and DEATH OF THE NILE took place mostly on a passenger train and pleasure cruise ship respectively, but this sequel is darker, edgier, and more compellingly insular in setting its story within an ominous Gothic palazzo in Venice that may (or may not) be inhabited by spirits. The older and wearier atheist problem solver would prefer to put his occupation behind him, but is called back into it with - yes - another murder occurring that can only be solved by the likes of him. This ghastly puzzle, though, tests not only his wits, but his beliefs. He's a doggedly pragmatic man of deductive logic and science who's bound and determined to prove that this house is not haunted, even with weird things occurring within it that stymie him in the process.
A HAUNTING IN VENICE is based on the more obscure (and somewhat blandly titled) 1969 Christie novel HALLOWE'EN PARTY, but Branagh is not aiming here for a slavishly faithful adaptation. The novel was set in 1960s England, but Branagh sets it in 1940s Venice. The film version does retain a few of the key elements from the source material, like the horrific (and questionable) death of a young girl in the recent past and a crime novelist that serves as a sidekick, of sorts, to Poirot (she claims that her books helped pave the way to his legendary status in his field). The quintessential Christie elements are all here in abundance (a murder occurs, suspects are gathered and interviewed by the meticulous mind game-playing Poirot, red herrings rear up, and the truth and final culprits are revealed), which may momentarily make audience members feel like they're getting another routine and formulaic outing. But what's so juicy in A HAUNTING IN VENICE are, as mentioned, the supernatural aspects of the case, which tests the detective in ways never explored in the past two films. This third installment radically shifts the look and feel of these Branagh-led Poirot films, and the fresh genre twisting and mashing on display here makes Poirot's personal journey this time even more enthralling. He has to solve a case, but he also has his atheism challenged...and hard.
He starts this story tired and reclusive, but not washed up. More or less retired to the beauty of Venice and protected from his legion of admirers (and the onslaught of prospective clients that yearn to hire him) by his loyal bodyguard, Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio), Poirot wants peace and quiet. An old acquaintance of his shows up, Ariadne (Tiny Fey, a very inspired bit of casting), the aforementioned mystery novelist (and possible meta stand in for Christie herself) who wants to bring her friend to a Halloween night visit to a palazzo owned by Rowena (Kelly Reilly), who's about to hold a séance to reach the spirit of her dead daughter. Ariadne believes that Poirot owes her the tagalong because of the fame her books have bestowed upon him (that, and she knows that the razor-sharp minded detective will have his skills put to the test with this adventure). Poirot begrudgingly agrees, but not because he believes in ghosts or séances, but rather because it'll involve a night out. He also seems keen on helping Ariadne, who wants to use this séance as source material for a new book.
Things get weirder by the minute upon their arrival, especially when a slick talking medium shows up as well, Joyce Reynolds (played superbly by recent Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh). The séance commences and it does initially appear to have worked...that is until Poirot (within mere minutes of its aftermath) systematically debunks this all has an elaborate fraud (and with proof).
Case closed, right?
A dead body (as it always does) manages to show up during the creepy storm-ravaged night, which springs Poirot into action. He locks down the mansion and forbids anyone to leave until he interviews everyone there and figures out...well...whodunit. We get an obligatory group of eccentric (and guilty looking in their own way) suspects, like Dr. Leslie (Jamie Dornan) and his son, Leopold (Jude Hill...hey...both of them played father and son in Branagh's BELFAST...nice!). There's the house's caretaker, Olga (Camille Cotton), and a couple of twitchy-eyed immigrants (Emma Laird and Ali Khan) that only wish to go to America. There's an old lover and fiancé of Rowena's daughter, Maxime (Kyle Allen), and his hot-headed temper leads to much finger pointing his way. But Poirot doesn't just play psychological warfare with these personalities, but also with Ariadne and Vitale themselves. Everyone's a suspect until proven innocent.
But...what if...no one did it? What if...an otherworldly presence is to blame?
Poirot is just as joyously rascally and shrewd in his observations as ever in A HAUNTING IN VENICE, and part of the joy of this film (and the last two) is seeing him make mental mince meat out of those that defy or doubt his abilities. His detective skills have not diminished one iota during retirement, and he seems as driven as even to solve this humdinger of a case. But what truly tests him (and the audience, for that matter) is the validity of the eerie happenings at the palazzo itself post-murder and, as a logical extension, whether ghosts and ghost stories are to be believed or not. There's a dicey pendulum swinging all throughout A HAUNTING IN VENICE, the reality of what's occurring and the potential unreality that science can't explain. I think it was wise of Branagh to set this film in a world still ravaged by both WWI and II, with some of the characters (Poirot himself) witnessing the horrors of the battlefield first hand, whereas others (like Rowena) struggle with the economic devastation that the wars have cost her family and now desperately tries to find that way of life again. So many of these people have seen the worst that these events have dealt them, which gives A HAUNTING IN VENICE an evocative sense of time and place. Poirot himself just can't bring himself to believe in mediums and séances. "I have seen too much of the world. Countless crimes. Two wars. The bitter evil of human indifference. And I conclude. No God. No ghosts. No mediums that can speak with the dead." I mean...he's got reasons not to believe. But then he starts hearing voices that no one else can and seeing images in mirrors that appear and disappear at will. Hmmmm....
The classical Hollywood elegance of Branagh's previous Poirot entries is back in abundance here, but now it's cross-pollinated with the sinister haunted house picture. A HAUNTING IN VENICE isn't as lavish and sprawling as MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and DEATH ON THE NILE and is much more limited in terms of its setting. For me, the film is all the better because of it. Blending actual location shooting in Venice (the opening sections are gorgeously shot) with London-based soundstage work and thanklessly unobtrusive visual effects, Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos make the geographical sandbox of this film (especially the palazzo itself) simmer with so much haunting dread and anxiety plagued unease. It's also the most stylistically varied of all the Branagh/Poirot films, using everything from tilted Dutch angles, weird fish-eyed lenses, obscure shadow play, and a beguiling sound design that builds this film's sinister mood throughout. A HAUNTING IN VENICE is also more unnerving and edgy than it is graphic and scary (jump scares - albeit here from time to time - are kept to a minimum). The closed-off and claustrophobic surroundings here (all lensed like something out of a surreal nightmare) are a million miles removed from the gloriously decadent and inviting settings of what's come before.
The wonderfully diverse cast here is reliably strong too, and in particular I admired the outside-of-the-box boldness of hiring comedian Tina Fey as her novelist companion to Poirot. She's pretty delightful here and has a welcome and snarky push-pull dynamism with Poirot that gives Branagh something new to play off of here. Yeoh is also fantastic as her unsettling medium, who's either a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing hustler or an actual communicator with the dead (her tricky performance has to adeptly not tip us off one way or another). And, yes, there's Branagh as Poirot himself, whom after three films can confidently say that he has made this character proudly his own (and after other actors before have put their own stamp on him). Branagh's tapping into his fastidiousness, brilliance, and endearing arrogance make this version of Christie's iconic character such an inviting pleasure in this trilogy. I wrote in my review of DEATH ON THE NILE that it "genuinely made me want to see more mystery adventures to come for the inspector." After watching A HAUNTING IN VENICE, that has not changed whatsoever. I could handle a dozen more sequels with Branagh quarterbacking it all. That's not something I can say with relish these days about most modern franchises. I would take another Hercule Poirot murder mystery over any super film any day of the week and twice on Sunday, and A HAUNTING IN VENICE is not only the best of this trilogy, but it might be the best third film in a trilogy that I can recall as of late.