A Haunting in Venice Review

A Haunting in Venice
A Haunting in Venice
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For six years now, Kenneth Branagh has directed Hercule Poirot movies. At this point, his star-studded Agatha Christie adaptations feel more like passion projects than his own pseudo-biopic – the lukewarm Troubles-set drama Belfast – did, and his third entry in the mystery series is no exception. A Haunting in Venice is a very strange but enjoyable movie inspired by Hallowe’en Party, one of Christie’s late novels that was not favorably received. It feels like an unscheduled rerun of an unmade low budget TV special, all while continuing to build upon the personal mythology that Branagh has created for his version of the characteristically mustachioed detective making it quite a good movie which almost becomes an exceptional work and surpasses its two earlier installments.

What is immediately clear about A Haunting in Venice is that it suffers from some over-eager trimming. Almost half an hour shorter than Death on the Nile at a mere 103 minutes; hence its opening sequences and eventual character payoffs are bound to appear hasty. Yet, once the film’s frenetic horror plot takes off, Hollywood’s pulp imaginations are transformed into some of this year’s most viscerally exciting imagery by its breakneck pace that brings together disparate pieces.

Ten years after Murder on The Orient Express took place, retired Poirot (Branagh) lives out the rest of his days enjoying his solitude in Venice with much help from Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian bodyguard who hurls them into Venetian canals as they approach him with conspiracy theories regarding any Belgian detectives he may know. It is audaciously hilarious how little Poirot still cares for investigations. He’s hiding in plain sight as a former celebrity – until he receives a visit from American novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), one of Christie’s most popular characters, who returns into this series after a very long absence. The effervescent writer who made her fame writing books that were loosely based around Poirot, invites him to step out of his comfort zone for once and enjoy himself at a Halloween party thrown by a colleague, but the author’s true motive would soon be revealed.

In good old Poirot fashion, “zere has been a merder” (or maybe even suicide; very few know for certain). However, the victim—a twelve-year-old girl named Alicia Drake—has been dead for over twelve months. This party in fact is going to include a séance done by world famous medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) whom Oliver intends to unmask as a fake with Poirot’s help. What nobody suspects though is that tonight’s riddles are going to get more intricate pulling Poirot back in when he had thought himself out with an additional issue of whether there are supernatural factors involved.

The movie toggles between snappy humor and silent scenes with wild abandon. However, the Dutch angles that Branagh is famous for are at their most extreme here – of course I meant to say that it’s an uneven opening. Supporting characters have different connections with the murder victim ranging from her depressed mom Rowena (played by Kelly Reilly), house help Olga (Camille Cottin) and her angry ex-fiancée Maxime (Kyle Allen) to his cold doctor, Leslie (acted by Jamie Dornan), and his very unnatural son Leopold (Jude Hill) who speaks as if he has been too enclosed by old people both living and dead.

Not so in Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, where passing guests’ nearness to demise is a new thing. A Haunting in Venice is just but a ghost story since no one knows if there are any spirits around. It is a ghost story because almost everyone, including Poirot, carries some sort of horrible pain about themselves and much of what Branagh wants to bring out about these characters remains unsaid.

While Murder on the Orient Express was a mediocre mystery that felt like it was running on auto-pilot throughout, its sequel featured a game-changing third-act twist that gave this film a highly personal touch: Poirot losing a friend upon whom Branagh used as an aesthetic fulcrum as well. The second Christie effort took him into murkier, more introspective grounds lit only by sorrowful eyes with dim lighting and impenetrable shadows concealing motivations.

For instance, this time around he uses it much earlier in order to place Poirot amongst suspects haunted by their tainted pasts. There have been many deaths in the domicile where the story unfolds; it is even thought that there may be some curse on it however whether or not this belief is shared among the characters, the house’s history is never far from the mind in every scene as Poirot’s own past sometimes peeks through the side of the frame.

In an age of shared universes, Branagh sees A Haunting in Venice as a separate episodic beast with little nods to previous installments. However, those who have watched them particularly Death on the Nile will find this experience alluring. It makes you feel that there is more weight on Poirot’s shoulders even though one can easily accept that a world-renowned detective would have experienced a lot of death. With his thoughtful portrayal, Branagh leaves no doubt that he has become a recluse; nonetheless, given what happened in its immediate predecessor after which it was suggested at least by implication that for the first time in years, he had opened himself to love and vulnerability, the opening of A Haunting in Venice feels doubly sad because we know something may happen between these two films.

In the same breath, there are silent phantoms that have stepped in through Branagh’s adaptation. For instance, Joyce Reynolds is changed from a teenager at the party to an adult medium by Michael Green who has returned as the screenwriter. In another major change, Christie’s story is shifted from England to Venice by Michael Green and also reconfigured for a 1947 setting instead of the 1960s (Branagh). While Venice was much less affected by World War II, it still served as an exotic vacation place; however, several of its characters are shown to have contributed to or experienced war trauma. Besides ghosts that they can see.

This morbidness is added onto by some of the most overt and genuinely wackadoo horror filmmaking from any major contemporary director (Branagh). It’s what makes A Haunting in Venice tick: Conversations get repeatedly interrupted with shots of slamming doors and windows—so much so that this becomes part of the movie’s rhythm. Whenever the shots at last stop lingering on characters long enough for monologues to be delivered, Branagh invariably sets up his stage with some ghostly figure or shadow hanging thinly around them in space empty around (familiar statue here; bedsheet falling into uncannily human shapes over there, etc.).

However, this works because it does what he wants it to do. The characters may be trying open up their soul but your eyes will always be drawn somewhere else as the production design puts something before you which is clearly not a spirit but bears close resemblance to one such that all you think about now is that huge thing at one corner of this room readying itself to move its arms and start screaming “Oogidy boogidy boo!”

Working again with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, Branagh’s camera work sizzles with energy. Coming between uncomfortably skewed close-ups, excessive use of an actor-held “ SnorriCam, ” and wide-angle lenses that distort the features of dimly lit hallways where people will inevitably die, his camera movements subside. In other words, the most horror-infused parts of the film become farcically comedic, while Poirot’s wit can only bring about a good response from viewers as he has to face not just his comrades but also himself.

Unfortunately, no matter how well the actors sell the underlying story, and for all its personal drama and strong character relationships , there lies a stumbling block in the same rapid-fire editing that accentuates the mystery’s momentum: it happens that who did it doesn’t matter as much as how this case will change Poirot or affect his beliefs (Branagh). Nevertheless, this is why Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot works so well for him. No one loves this character more than he does, except maybe Christie; but that matters more here in A Haunting in Venice than it ever did before.


An off-kilter horror-comedy told with breakneck momentum, A Haunting in Venice is a wild stylistic departure from Kenneth Branagh’s previous Poirot mysteries. However, after all this time (including any person presently alive), it remains a tribute to one of Belgium’s iconic detectives; no one cares more about Poirot than Branagh does.

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