Director and star Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot gets reeled into another whodunnit in A Haunting in Venice. Unlike predecessors Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the latest Agatha Christie adaptation trades in larger-scaled extravagance for a more intimate location that fully embraces the Baroque moodiness of its Halloween setting. While A Haunting in Venice might offer Poirot’s least engaging mystery yet, it’s offset by Branagh’s firm commitment to a spooky, claustrophobic atmosphere.
Meticulous detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) now lives in Venice, enjoying the retired life in 1947, until an old friend, American novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), comes calling. Working on her latest book, Ariadne talks Hercule into accompanying her to an All Hallows Eve séance hosted by renowned opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). Rowena has enlisted medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to contact the spirit of her daughter, who drowned under mysterious circumstances attributed to the palazzo’s restless spirits. As soon as Hercule makes his supernatural skepticism abundantly clear, murder ensues, pulling Hercule out of retirement. This time, though, he may have to count ghosts among the suspect list.
Branagh pulls out all the stops in establishing a suitably gothic tone for the night’s murder mystery. While Hercule locks everyone inside Rowena’s gloomy palazzo as he works to deduce the killer, a storm rages on outside; the crashing waves and winds only heighten the claustrophobic mood. Production designer John Paul Kelly (Blithe Spirit, The Other Boleyn Girl) adds rich detail and plenty of foreboding shadows within the stately home. Mostly, though, it’s Branagh’s direction that gives Hercule’s latest turn a classic ghost story feel, cozy and unsettling all at once. It’s through frequent Dutch angles, closeups framed in shadows, and quick edits that Branagh makes quick work of transforming Hercule Poirot’s usual murder mystery into a grand, sweeping Halloween party. The impressive technique goes far here; Branagh employs careful restraint when it comes to any supernatural elements.
That A Haunting in Venice looks and feels like a vintage ghost story, complete with nods to Edgar Allan Poe, helps when the murders pile up and the whodunnit becomes more convoluted. The central mystery is never as fascinating or engaging as the setting, and observant deduction makes it easier to finger the prime suspect long before Hercule’s grand reveal. Screenwriter Michael Green smartly works around this by using the supernatural aspect of the whodunnit to provide internal conflict for the typically unflappable Hercule. The mystery slides slightly to the background as Hercule grapples with the possibility of the supernatural, shaking his foundational beliefs.
Branagh navigating Hercule’s lost sense of reality is matched by Fey’s razor-sharp Ariadne, a boisterous and cunning author eager to challenge her longtime friend. Jude Hill also stands out among the crowded ensemble; his wise Leopold brings a charming precociousness beyond his years.
At least in Branagh’s interpretation of Christie’s famous character, Hercule Poirot is a reserved fellow, and that extends to his films, too. A Haunting in Venice doesn’t break from convention, nor does it plunge fully into horror. It fits neatly in line with the previous installments, but Branagh gives it an edge with the haunting style that highlights the protagonist’s internal struggle with identity. It’s the characters and the stunning gothic production that make this a winsome welcome to the Halloween season for horror and non-horror fans alike.
A Haunting in Venice releases in theaters on September 15, 2023.