This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Kenneth Branagh returns as Hercule Poirot in A Haunting in Venice, a horror-mystery that leaves much horror and mystery to be desired.
Maybe it should be easy to go gentle on A Haunting in Venice the third film in Kenneth Branagh’s quasi-anthology film series kicking off with the star-studded bombast of Murder on the Orient Express and followed up by the gaudy breathlessness of A Death on the Nile. His latest attempt to make audiences forget that Benoit Blanc (and Rian Johnson) does this cinematic murder mystery schtick better and more brilliantly comes in the form of a scaled down, back-to-basics whodunnit send-up with Halloween costumes, spooky set pieces, and some honest-to-Christie filmmaking technique with a far more accomplished runtime. If only the puzzle itself wasn’t also so, well, basic.
The world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, naturally) now resides in Venice, Italy, where folks from all over the world constantly hound him to solve their burning mysteries despite his recent retirement. One such hounder is mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who bases her Agatha-Christie-type novels on Poirot’s real-life exploits and convinces him to join a seance at a Halloween party, itself an effort to discover the true cause of a tragic, untimely death.
Was it murder? Or perhaps supernatural?
That’s the aching question behind most of the film, as Poirot engages with the same cast of colorful characters, this time an arrangement of well-known TV actors and some of the cast of Branagh’s Belfast, instead of a who’s-who of Hollywood film royalty like in his previous Christie adaptations — this one being of the 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party, albeit quite loosely.
There’s Jamie Dornan as the troubled doctor, Jude Hill as his genius son, Michelle Yeoh as the medium, Camille Cottin as the put-upon housekeeper, Kelly Reilly as the murder victim’s mother, and so on from there. Again, this is a leaner, tighter, and more focused effort from Branagh to deliver better thrills than thinkers. Better puzzle pieces than set pieces. Yet it’s hard not to piece the mystery yourself, this time penned by screenwriter Michael Green.
Probably the best of these movies by default.
As a result, A Haunting in Venice is probably the best of these movies by default, which might sound revelatory for those who genuinely enjoyed Murder on the Orient Express (I was certainly not one of them). For once, these movies have something of a memorable atmosphere, one aiding in the immersion of the mystery itself, why it spurs on desperation from its key players, and an urgency to see it done.
The trouble comes in a lot of the hanging threads and plot machinations, as well as an over-abundance of attention paid to Poirot’s denial of the supernatural. It’s not wrong, of course, to assume a man so firmly placed in logic and facts would be a stickler for souls and ghosts. But this conflict never elegantly ties together with the main point of his journey in this movie, which is supposedly his reckoning with retirement and what to do with himself now that he’s endured two world wars and all the suffering in between. As soon as the movie starts to drum up some interest in that frankly intriguing subject matter, it swerves into pedantic horror movie cosplay.
The bottom line.
Ultimately, A Haunting in Venice is a “we listened to your comments” type of fan service, so there’s not much to complain about in that sense if you’re a true fan of the series and Branagh’s encompassing take on this character. It’s more of the same, but done marginally better, humbler, and with less eagerness for applause. There’s no mystery for why that’s the best path forward for these movies.
A Haunting in Venice is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.
A HAUNTING IN VENICE - 6/10