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A Haunting in Venice ★★★



Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Kelly Reilly, Jude Hill, Riccardo Scamarcio, Camille Cottin, Kyle Allen & Rowan Robinson

Release: 15th September 2023

It may have taken three films, but Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot series has finally found its stride in A Haunting in Venice. It has been a long time coming to reach this point of reward, considering how the previous films were dogged by production delays and casting controversies. Its resilience highlights an audience’s appetite for murder mystery stories, including Only Murders in the Building, See How They Run, Poker Face and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. At the time of this review, Murder She Wrote is next in line for the cinematic adventure. So it only seems fair that as one of the architects of the genre, Agatha Christie, gets a slice of the mainstream spotlight once again. A Haunting in Venice may not be reinventing the wheel when it comes to supernatural thrillers, but it certainly leaves a mark as the best instalment in the trilogy.

If Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile vary in quality (struggling between the intimacy of the mystery and blockbuster marketing), its latest chapter is a vast improvement. No more waiting a full hour before a mystery gets going. No more unintentionally comical lines such as the infamous “enough champagne to fill the Nile” (although Haunting features a great one-liner made by a talking parrot). Not even Imagine Dragons can spoil the party with a trailer picked song straight off from one of their albums. Simply put, A Haunting in Venice is a course correction and a much-needed one. It does well to learn from past mistakes, and when it eventually finds its groove, it delivers an intensely satisfying murder mystery.

The film’s success (and mood) works because it is tonally different from its predecessors. Loosely adapted from Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, writer Michael Green (Death on the Nile and co-writer of Blade Runner 2049) instils a tightly woven focus this time around. Switching locations from the UK (where Christie’s short story was originally based) to the popular Italian city keeps up with the franchise’s globetrotting experiences, as well as exploring the creative freedoms that come along with adapting from book to screen. But as the autumnal weather starts to seep in and the nights become longer, a ghost story about a haunted Palazzo feels like the perfect tonic. Ghostly apparitions and supernatural seances take up the bulk of the mystery, but it quickly develops into a psychological examination of Poirot’s faith. 

When we are reintroduced to the famous moustachio detective, Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has been living in seclusion, jaded and retired from the world. His reclusiveness and reluctance to help those in need are aided by his bodyguard, Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio), who keeps a demanding public away from Poirot’s view. His friend and crime writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) provides company (along with a humorous touch) to pull the detective out of his self-imposed isolation. Tempted by the story of murder on Halloween – the mysterious death of Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson) and whether a psychic medium in Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) can actually speak to the dead, Poirot reluctantly joins a seance. When it goes wrong, and one of the guests is murdered, it’s up to the detective to find out who the killer is.

Missed opportunities, unfortunately, stop A Haunting in Venice from exploring some of its concepts on a deeper level. When a film is constantly fighting for on-screen space with a stacked (yet talented) cast, not everyone gets the room to really flex their acting muscles. It’s further not helped by the film’s tendency to rush towards a conclusion and ultimate reveal. But when Poirot becomes the centre of attention, when placed in context, what the film accomplishes makes sense when you take into account the previous films. 

A lot has been made about Poirot’s OCD obsessions: his comic demand for eggs being the same size. His schoolboy giggles whenever he reads books by Charles Dickens—his passionate love of desserts, which must be equally numbered and distributed. Poirot revels in the balance and order of things, but he is also a man surrounded by death, grief and tragedy on a regular basis. He has lived through two World Wars (with A Haunting in Venice taking place in 1947, two years after Germany’s surrender), lost friends (most significantly Tom Bateman’s Bouc in Death on the Nile) and has grown cynical of the human condition. The unspeakable acts of evil committed against their fellow flesh and blood has made him question his belief in humanity. Death takes on an intoxicated meaning in Haunting, where you can’t escape from the ghosts that haunt you. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that when the dead speak, it shakes him to his core.

It’s further emboldened by Branagh’s audacious camera direction. A lot can be said about the ‘world-spinning’ POV shots and dutch angles – after all, choices were made! But it does add to the film’s visual aesthetic, painting an otherworldly experience that has become a visual trait for the director and the franchise. Like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the camera takes omnipresent characteristics, as if something or someone was watching the investigation from afar. Its predecessors used this technique sparingly. Haunting makes this connection far more explicit, dialling up the atmospheric tension to eleven. Add Hildur Guðnadóttir’s impeccable score into the mix and the film takes advantage of the silence and minimalist tones to create mood while Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography and Tomas Blazukas’ sound design cater towards unexpected jump scares. Storywise, the ‘old school’ style mystery may not be the most spectacular, but its production design is the real winner out of this.

But like any good murder mystery, at least this time around, it remembers to enjoy itself! Branagh is in his element as Poirot. His portrayal feels more relaxed, inspired by the witty eccentricities of Poirot’s behaviour and the frailties when challenged by things he cannot explain. Fey delights as the film’s comic relief. Yeoh continues to shine despite the limited screen time. Alongside the trio, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill and Kyle Allen are underused despite making the most of the material they have at their disposal.

A Haunting in Venice requires attention and patience to become immersed in its gothic worldbuilding. But at least it keeps it fun and entertaining. And if Branagh continues to make a Poirot film every couple of years, then I would happily watch them.

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