Actor/director Kenneth Branagh has his cinematic muses, and Agatha Christie seems to have joined William Shakespeare as another presence that holds much sway over his storytelling heart. And with the filmmaker already having two entries from the famed author’s series of Hercule Poirot mysteries on his filmography, A Haunting in Venice is the right film coming at the right time to mix things up.
A Haunting in Venice
Release Date: September 15, 2023
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Written By: Michael Green
Starring: Kyle Allen, Kenneth Branagh, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Kelly Reilly, Riccardo Scamarcio and Michelle Yeoh
Rating: PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements.
Runtime: 103 minutes
Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green infuse this latest outing featuring the aforementioned Belgian detective with an atmosphere that borders horror, and the change of pace is both riveting and disturbing. The reinterpretation of the novel Hallowe’en Party delivers the literary deep cut with an exciting, dangerous energy.
We catch up with a retired and world weary Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) shortly after the conclusion of World War II in A Haunting In Venace. The veteran-turned-sleuth has given up detective work and moved onto his passions of gardening and pastry consumption. At least until until old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) drags him into a scenario that’s too good to pass up. With famed medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) set to try and contact the dead on Halloween night, a group of participants will be gathered in a supposedly haunted palazzo in Venice, and Hercule is intent on exposing this happening as a charade.
What starts as an attempt to connect with another realm turns into a murder mystery that taxes Poirot’s deductive reasoning as well as his sanity. For him, it’s a bad time all around;– but for us the audience, it makes for a fantastic hat trick that proves that Kenneth Branagh is once again tapped into something he’s got a voracious artistic appetite for with A Haunting in Venice.
A Haunting in Venice is a gorgeously claustrophobic thriller that borders on gothic horror.
Trading in the traveling suspense of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, this latest case breaks from its England-set source material by opting to take place in the dark beauty of post-war Venice. While a lush cast of characters is still employed, A Haunting in Venice confines itself to the tortured dwelling of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) and her Halloween party of the damned. It’s a change in scope, but not in effectiveness, as this whodunnit goes darker than either of its predecessors chose to do.
Adding up to a gorgeously claustrophobic exercise in detective work, watching Branagh’s Poirot investigate heinous crimes of the past and present is just as exciting in a singular location as it is while he's sailing on the Nile. It’s an opportunity that also compliments the shift in genre and tone that A Haunting in Venice takes on, as the legends surrounding this central location provide a gothic horror taste.
Humor and heartbreak are still happily offered throughout Michael Green’s screenplay, and the performances Kenneth Branagh brings out of his cast is on par with his stellar efforts with previous ensembles. We still have moments where Hercule Poirot in particular gets to be both glib and haunted, with melancholy again tying everything together. But be warned: you might find it a little hard to know when to laugh or scream, as those moods tend to go hand in hand with the game at play.
Assembling yet another murderer’s row of talent, Poirot’s latest adventure is the detective’s most personal and mind bending.
It’s a tradition to bring together a group of performers both fresh and familiar when crafting an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Varying the talent at hand tends to help shuffle the deck of expectations, as you never know if the franchise player, the Academy Award winner, or the relative industry newcomer is going to be the victim that sets things in motion. A Haunting in Venice understands that brief rather well, right down to its marketing campaign of freely cast suspicion on anyone who isn’t Kenneth Branagh.
As per usual, not a role is wasted, with the entire cast deliciously walking the line between suspect behavior and emotional motivation. Just as one would expect, though, there are standout MVPs.
Adding to the humorous qualities of the movie, Tina Fey’s fast-talking transatlantic rendition of Ariadne Oliver is one of the most delightful additions to the big screen mystery series. With her character appearing in other literary adventures alongside Poirot, there’s a potential for future sequels to reuse her character, and that will hopefully come to pass, as the first act of A Haunting in Venice pairs Fey with Kenneth Branagh so well that it makes the expository setup a breeze.
Credit must also be given to Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, both returning members of the Branagh Repertory Company after their father/son performance in Belfast. Once again teamed up in those familial roles, Dornan’s tortured Dr. Leslie Ferrier gives the actor yet another chance to swim in unfamiliar dramatic waters. And as for Hill, his portrayal of Leslie’s son Leopold is another sterling credit to the young man’s resume. In A Haunting in Venice’s constellation of impressively bright stars, these actors in particular burn the brightest, which only lifts the rest of the cast.
Then there’s Hercule Poirot, the perennial “smartest man in the room.” Kenneth Branagh is still sinking his teeth into this role from both sides of the camera, and his passion is still readily apparent in every interrogation and every baked good consumed. That being said, A Haunting in Venice’s case is one that pushes our protagonist’s analytical mind to a point we haven’t previously seen. His attempts to reconcile cold hard reason with supposedly unexplained and supernatural forces make for fresh material within this storied character, and offer some rewarding ties and references to the past that loyalists will find fascinating.
Fans of Michael Green and Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptations will undoubtedly be thrilled again.
I’ve gone on record several times stating that so long as Michael Green and Kenneth Branagh want to keep making Hercule Poirot movies, I’ll keep returning to see them. A Haunting in Venice has not dulled that promise one bit, as this lean and mean tale of terror shows just how versatile Agatha Christie’s signature sleuth is when it comes to reinvention. The ability to scale this franchise into a setting as open or closed as the creators would want, and in any tone that they choose to paint it, is a skeleton key to delightful possibilities.
It’s because of that reinvention that A Haunting in Venice might have the ability to surprise even the most die hard of fans who enjoy Hercule’s scrutiny on display. More horrifying and morbid themes are presented in this anthological threequel, but the picture that develops from these changes is still very much in the old school Hollywood vein that Branagh loves to tap into every time he plays the classics.
A Haunting in Venice might even win some new fans to the table, as the lack of required viewing is something that makes this chapter accessible to pure thriller/horror fans. This could be the best asset this series has to offer, as impressed viewers may be inspired to track down Kenneth Branagh’s previous entries, as well as the varied adaptations and literary sources that give the name of Hercule Poirot its iconic pop culture standing. All movie-goers have something to look forward to, as the latest Christie case closes with a solution so satisfying that it’ll inspire audiences to wish for more.