The Plot: The famous Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has retired to Venice, the sinking city that has an air of death about it. He happens upon American crime writer Ariadne (Tina Fey), who wants to pickle his brain on a certain matter. Spirit medium Mrs Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) is holding a seance on Hallowe’en to contact the dead daughter of Rowena (Kelly Reilly). Poirot is to discredit Mrs. Reynolds’ behaviour as a fraud, but then he begins to question his own sanity when things take an apparent turn into the supernatural. Then a corpse turns up and the game is afoot…
The Verdict: When Belfast boy Kenneth Branagh has worked in the film industry as long as he has, garnering much acclaim on the way, doors open to many opportunities. At this stage in his distinguished career, he can do anything that tickles his fancy. Since 2017, he has settled into the latest screen incarnation of Agatha Christie’s prime detective Hercule Poirot and audiences have quite rightly embraced his intelligent and amusingly persnickety performance. He not only captures the essence of the character but also the sharp, constantly0whirring mind. But what happens when Poirot has his own beliefs challenged by the unknown? Can a man steeped in hard evidence, indisputable facts and the complexities of motivations accept that there’s something else out there beyond the rational and explainable? It’s an intriguing premise for the latest entry, A Haunting In Venice.
Rather than pursue a screen remake of, say, Evil Under The Sun, Branagh has chosen Hallowe’en Party, one of the lesser-known Poirot novels by Christie and moved the suspense from the UK to Venice. In this story, Poirot is not flexing his little gray cells as much these days. He instead prefers to obsess over the details of pastries while shadowed by his bodyguard Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio) who has his own troubled past. It’s not long though before Poirot is drawn into a seance investigation which gets him back into the spirit of things on Hallowe’en of all days. Michael Green’s adaptation plays out as much a whydunit as a whodunit. Unlike previous entries in this strand, there’s less of the finger-pointing and deep backstories with character interconnectivity. A Haunting In Venice is a more heightened affair, with all the suspects locked in for the night while a violent storm rages outside matching the intensity of the suspicious atmosphere.
It’s in this heady and supernaturally-tinged atmosphere that Branagh, as director-producer-actor, mines some real gems. The seance sequence is particularly tense, pushing at the boundaries of its supposedly family-friendly rating to make the clunk of a typewriter key unsettling in itself. It might be enough to even turn Tom Hanks off his beloved typewriter. There’s more too later on when Poirot starts seeing… things. Branagh does this rather cleverly through the power of suggestion while also hinting that Poirot himself might be questioning his own, usually-observant mind. Unlike the mostly studio-bound Death On The Nile which felt a bit too synthetic, A Haunting In Venice is a full-blown Venetian affair which makes fine use of its locations as the plot moves into murder most mysterious mode.
It does come across as a lower-key Poirot entry though, smaller and more intimate in its details. Branagh can’t quite decide on the exact tone of the film too. It’s a mystery allright, but within that he mixes elements of potentially ghastly horror without fully buying into what that entails. One senses that he’s holding back from really shaking Poirot to his intellectual core. Instead, Poirot is given a moderate rattling as part of this rattling yarn that moves at a decent pace and is suspenseful throughout. Now that he has settled well into the role of Poirot, one gets the sense that Branagh could knock out a new sleuthing adventure every few years – a character to have some fun with while he pursues more weighty subjects like Belfast. Further instalments would therefore not be unwelcome, particularly when whodunits are now so fashionable again and he has the character down to a T.
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
A Haunting In Venice
Murder most mysterious
A Haunting In Venice (USA / UK / Italy / 12A / 103 mins)
In short: Murder most mysterious
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, Riccardo Scamarcio, Jamie Dornan, Kelly Reilly, Jude Hill.