A HAUNTING IN VENICE Beautifully Blends Horror Mystery and Humor

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Kenneth Branagh’s third outing at Hercule Poirot proves his best yet

Photos provided by the Walt Disney Company.

While modern day Hollywood seems exclusively built on franchises and intellectual property, perhaps one of the stranger examples is Kenneth Branagh has quietly carving a corner for himself to seemingly make Hercule Poirot films until he loses interest in them. Doubly interesting, thanks to a major studio absorbing another, the most risk-averse of all studios, the Walt Disney Company, is the money behind these unapologetically grown-up mystery films. Thus far however, Branagh’s takes on Poirot are have proven mostly safe if confidently done adaptations, but nothing that distinguishes itself from previous variations. They are comfortable and inoffensive, but never really felt vital the first two times out.

Luckily for fans of both Branagh and Poirot, and those disappointed by his seemingly cursed adaptation of Death on the Nile, the latest outing, A Haunting in Venice, is his strongest Poirot film yet, intermingling the sophisticated whodunit formula with elements of supernatural horror. Which is especially encouraging, as while the three films do form something of a loose trilogy, each is ultimately a stand alone mystery. Meaning that there is no reason for people to jump in now, especially as we approach the beginning of spooky season, for a unique and creepy murder mystery with equal parts dread, humor and sophisticated ambiance.

Loosely based on Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, Haunting is set a full decade, as well as an entire World War, after the last time we saw Branagh’s Poirot in Nile. Now officially retired and retreated to Venice, Poirot is refusing to take on any new cases. But when an old friend, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) shows up to ask him a simple favor: to observe famed medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) and attempt to debunk her claimed ability to commune with the dead. Poirot seems less than interested out of all-consumed cynicism on anything regarding spirits or souls, but out of his duty of friendship to Ariadne he agrees.

Of course, this being a Poirot story, things ultimately go a bit awry. Poirot soon learns that the person Reynolds is meant to commune with was a young woman who died under mysterious circumstances. Her grieving mother, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), longs to find closure in her daughter’s death, but also is convinced that the ghosts who haunt her villa are responsible. Before too long, new murders draw Poirot out of retirement, setting the stage for him to solve yet another puzzling parlor mystery. And that is even before mysterious unexplainable things start occurring, causing Poirot to question his own skepticism on the existence of supernatural phenomena.

Like all the previous Branagh Poirot films, Haunting largely functions as an ensemble piece, with the potential suspects all having their own time with the quirky, methodical detective. What makes it feel more unique is how it is by design more contained and claustrophobic, circling around a colorful set of character tropes who are all interconnected. There is the deeply religious family caretaker convinced the home is possessed (Camille Cottin), the doctor scarred by PTSD related to his time in World War II (Jamie Dornan), his precocious son (Jude Hill), and a pair of refugees who assist Yeoh’s mysterious medium (Emma Laird and Ali Khan.) The strength of both Branagh’s direction and the excellent script from Michael Green is the balancing between all these voices, giving everyone moments to shine, but also casting suspicion on each in due turn.

Kenneth Branagh and Tina Fey prove a winning on-screen pairing.

While the fun of unraveling multiple interrelated mysteries is at the heart of what this franchise continues to offer, it is that script from Green that truly sets this outing apart from the previous two adaptations. Unlike both Murder on the Orient Express and Nile, Green used Hallowe’en Party as the barest sketch to build on, meaning that even the most avid Christie fans will have surprises in store. The setting of the film,  a post-War Italy coming to terms with its role in the Axis, carries with it much weight, both explicit and implicit. Through its setting and set pieces, the film circles around and explores topics as diverse as faith, the existence of God, and the very purpose of living in a seemingly unjust and cruel world. These people are not just haunted by ghosts, but rather haunted by questions regarding the very nature of humanity, and if it’s worth worrying about in the wake of the horrors recently revealed.

The more supernatural horror elements of the film are also expertly implemented. The suspense of the circumstances never is played cheaply, leaning more into tension and unsettling circumstances than cheap jump scares. Branagh makes great use of his location, an actual villa in Venice, that carries the seeming weight of the scares with it, a place dripping with atmosphere. At times you feel like you have a sense of the space, but as Poirot’s grip on the circumstances change, Branagh’s composition of the space morphs and shifts, keeping the viewer off-center as well.

And while it took him three films to get there, Branagh seems to have finally found his voice for Poirot. He is funny, if dryly so, containing a sense of warmth that is bundled under all of his mannerisms and meticulous calculated movements. His interactions with Tina Fay’s Ariadne are especially thrilling, as he finally has another mystery-minded foil to bounce his calculations against, someone who can follow along with his train of thought, if perhaps a step behind her colleague. But after two films where he was gesturing towards big ideas, Branagh’s finally settles into a deeply human, deeply engaging take on the famous detective to feels both true and fully his.

The arc of a successful mystery is of course allowing the audience to be in on the pieces, to give them enough to feel like they are playing along, but never quite revealing the whole circumstances until the final magic trick is revealed. To this end, the mystery of Haunting resolves satisfactorily, feeling appropriately solvable while not obvious. But the true magic is how the themes and the mystery converge, and how Poirot’s piece in the case connects back to his own traumas and pains. Hopefully Branagh and Green are given the runway to make another delightful mystery together, because they just appear to be hitting their stride.

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