'A Haunting in Venice': A Thrilling Supernatural Whodunit
Kenneth Branagh's late-career pivot to making adaptations of Agatha Christie's iconic mysteries has been something I can't help but be fascinated by. Branagh has made a name for himself with his various Shakespeare adaptations, beginning with 1989's Henry V and 2006's As You Like It as his most recent of these. There is a sense of vanity in his Shakespeare films, often to their detriment. Between then and now, he tried his hand at other properties, most notably, Marvel, Disney, and Jack Ryan, but nothing seemed to stick for him until 2017's Murder on the Orient Express. With him both directing and taking on the role of Christie's most well-known character, Hercule Poirot, it became clear that this was a vanity project for Branagh. It was a decent hit at the box office, and sparked two sequels, 2022's Death on the Nile and now, A Haunting in Venice. Given how disastrous Nile was, both in terms of its delayed release and its critical reception, I was a little surprised that Venice was greenlit. I was pretty skeptical of the film going into it, given that I haven't been particularly wowed by any of Branagh's Poirot adaptations. I could say the same for this one, but I can't deny that I was pretty entertained by it, and that it is the most cinematic of his Poirot films to date.
Based on Christie's novel Hallowe'en Party, the film follows a retired Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) in Venice, where he lives in solitude. On Halloween, he is visited by mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) who convinces him to attend a séance at a local palazzo hosted by Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), an opera singer whose daughter, Alicia, recently died by suicide. She wants Poirot to help her expose Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a medium who she believes to be a fraud. At the séance, Reynolds is able to commune with Alicia, who claims that her death was not a suicide, but a murder. Soon, Poirot finds himself trying to solve the mystery of who killed Alicia, while also encountering some strange supernatural occurrences in the palazzo.
Kenneth Branagh has never been a filmmaker that I've been overly impressed by, as he functions as more of a journeyman. He has always been very hit or miss for me, but I must say that A Haunting in Venice might be my favorite of his Poirot films so far. If nothing else, it allows him to play with the film's visuals a little, resulting in one of the better looking films he has ever made. It's some of the more dynamic directing I've seen from Branagh, and I consider it a step in the right direction for him as a filmmaker. It feels like he has found a bit of a groove with the whodunnit aspects of the film, even if it does feel a tad formulaic at times. But the supernatural elements add a freshness to the film as a whole, and is handled by Branagh fairly well.
The cinematography and production design is what makes this film for me, as they work together to capture the beauty of Venice and the palazzo where much of the film takes place, but they also create a sense of unease and tension that fuels the back half of the film. The use of Dutch angles is somewhat excessive, but it is rather effective overall. In addition, the way the film uses shadows and darker colors is a welcome change from the glossy, artificial look of Death on the Nile and, to a lesser extent, Murder on the Orient Express. The film is certainly more atmospheric than the previous Poirot films, and it makes up for some of the script's failings.
Speaking of the script, I wouldn't say that it is anything particularly great, but it is much tighter than I was expecting. Maybe its because Death on the Nile was in the back of my mind while watching this and that film is kind of bloated and meandering, but Venice is much more to the point by comparison. I appreciate how it makes good use of its setting, as the original novel takes place in London. It uses Venetian iconography in a way that doesn't feel forced or overdone, and integrates the city's features into the plot nicely. However, the plot itself does feel a bit lacking, as the visuals and editing do more of the heavy lifting in terms of storytelling. As I alluded to earlier, there is a bit of a formula to these Poirot films, and it is starting to become more apparent. And even though the momentum of this film is pretty good, it still feels a bit slow and dry in places. I'm not sure if a fourth film will happen, but if it does, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green will need to find a way to keep things fresh. They manage to pull it off here, and maybe they could do it again if given the opportunity, but I remain somewhat skeptical on any future Poirot adaptations from them.
Keeping with the trend of the previous Poirot films (and the whodunit genre in general), the film brings together an eclectic cast to play the suspects at the center of the murder. However, this film has fewer big names compared to the previous films, which I kind of appreciated. The previous films had star-studded casts, but this film takes a different route, featuring a few recognizable faces, but mostly featuring lesser known actors. I think it works, as it allows some of the performances to feel a little more honest, as opposed to coasting on star power. I particularly thought that Camille Cottin, Emma Laird, and Ali Khan were pretty good, even if they are all underused. One of the biggest surprises for me was Jude Hill, best known for his role in Branagh's Belfast, as he gives a rather solid performance here. He has some surprising control and focus in how he plays the character of Leopold, and gives one of the better child performances I've seen this year. Hill is definitely an actor I am curious to see more of, as he certainly shows some potential to be truly great when he gets older. Michelle Yeoh is great as always, and nails all of her scenes. Specifically, the séance scene acts as a showcase for her, and is one of the highlights of the film, largely because of her performance. Kelly Reilly is perhaps the biggest standout, as she feels so dialed in as Rowena. She carries herself with the poise of an opera singer, but also portrays the broken aspects of her character beautifully. Reilly is certainly one of our finest living actors, and she does not disappoint here.
While the ensemble as a whole is pretty decent, I did have some issues with some of the acting here. Jamie Dornan is an actor I generally like for the most part, but I was disappointed by his performance here. He hams it up in certain moments, namely the ones where his character is experiencing PTSD, which makes him feel more surface level. He does have a couple of good scenes, but I couldn't help but be let down a little. I also felt that Tina Fey was miscast, and that she doesn't bring the right energy to the role of Ariadne. Fey has proven herself to be a good actor, especially in comedies, but she feels a little out of her element here. She brings a bit too much of her distinct persona here, which feels too muted and matter of fact compared to Branagh's Poirot, who she spends most of the film with. Branagh is making some serious choices as Poirot, and Fey feels so bland by comparison. Branagh, on the other hand, is decent here, as he feels a bit more settled into the role. I do think that he could be a little more nuanced, but I do think he has found his groove with the character, so I can't complain too much.
A Haunting in Venice doesn't change my opinion of Kenneth Branagh's Poirot films too much, but I must say that this is arguably my favorite one of the three. At the very least, it is the most fun and is quite well-crafted, which is certainly more than I was expecting from it. If Branagh ends up making another film in the series, I'd be a little surprised, mainly because this one ends on a good note and I'm not sure where they would go from here. But I am definitely more open to the idea of more Poirot after this film, even if I am a bit skeptical toward the idea.