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.
I feel like Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot series, as excellent as it is, is possibly cursed. The first film, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express famously starred Johnny Depp, who was going through a bit of a PR crisis after a messy divorce with Amber Heard, and a video leaking of the actor fighting with his ex-wife leaking right at the beginning of the #metoo movement. But that aside, Murder was excellent, with Depp playing a more nuanced and menacing heavy, that still stands today amongst the actor’s stronger performances where he did something other than, his stereotypical wacky character.
Next up was the shot in 2019 Death on the Nile, which starred Armie Hammer, who in the lead up to that film’s release notoriously was outed as texting women about drinking blood and cannibalism. During that time, Fox the studio, was gobbled up by Disney and the film was shelved for nearly 3 years thanks to not only the studio looking to weather another PR storm for the series, but COVID as well. While some many simply say these issues are possibly due to the director having such large and lavish casts, I rebuke that theory with you don’t see this happening to Rian Johnson.
But Branagh nonetheless persists with his passion project, and out of nowhere seemingly, a trailer for his third outing as the master detective Hercule Poirot, A Haunting in Venice was released loosely based on Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party. I was actually quite surprised when I first heard about the film, since I wasn’t even aware of its existence, but figured that Branagh who stars and directs these films was finally trying to get ahead of anything that could transpire on a press tour, that would honestly be abbreviated anyway given the strike. The film once again features an all star cast this time featuring Kyle Allen, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Kelly Reilly, Michelle Yeoh, Ali Khan, Emma Laird and Philly’s own Tina Fey.
Perfectly timed with the Halloween season, the film transpires in 1947 and has Hercule Poirot after the events of Nile, retired and living in Venice avoiding anyone trying to enlist his help. That is until an old friend, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a successful mystery author and no doubt Christie proxy, recruits the detective to help her debunk a notorious medium (Michelle Yeoh), who plans to do a séance on old Hallows Eve. What begins as an attempt to contact the daughter of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) at a supposedly haunted palazzo where she committed suicide, instead has Poirot trying to solve the young woman’s murder by one of the attendees. It’s a potboiler of a chamber piece that has the detective grappling with ghosts, both literal and metaphorical.
Kenneth Branagh is as great as ever leading this exciting ensemble that features some of my personal favorite actors. As far as Poirot goes, this film is the most human we’ve seen the master detective as this case tests not only his beliefs, but his skills of deduction, given it’s been some time since he’s taken a case. While Kelly Reilly turns in a much more understated performance that we’ve seen from her time on Yellowstone, Fey is a spitfire and is playing a tug of war with Branagh whenever the two share the screen. Yeoh is as good as you’d expect as the devilish medium Joyce Reynolds, but sadly we don’t get nearly enough of her character in the film as I would have liked.
Unlike the brighter and more picturesque films before this one, Haunting primarily takes place in a darkened palazzo to reinforce the claustrophobia of the setting, where the sound design is used to lean into the supernatural. Given both of these factors, I would HIGHLY suggest seeing the film in Dolby, since the sound is nearly a character here and the deep blacks you can get from their premium format only enhances the overall viewing experience. Pacing-wise the film’s 103 minute runtime assures you that the film moves at a brisk clip as we build to the dénouement that was easily my favorite of the last three films. I feel like Branagh is not only getting better with the character, but how he marries the mechanics of the detective story and intertwines it with a rather moving thematic exploration the impact of war.
With Kenneth Branagh’s third outing as Hercule Poirot, he turns in his most human take on the master detective yet, in a rather impressively paced and chilling chamber piece. I found the subtext about war and the mark it leaves on those that survive it especially poignant and moving. As for the scares, while there’s definitely more than a few solid jumpscares, this film is shockingly as clever as it is creepy. That is thanks to not only a credit to Branagh but another outstanding ensemble who no doubt will go down as my favorite as they test the detective in what was probably his most challenging case yet. A Haunting in Venice could finally be the unsullied hit of the series, delivering the detective’s most crowd pleasing adventure yet just when theaters need it most.