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.
“No one shall leave until I find out if the living have been killed by the dead.”
When Murder on the Orient Express came out back in 2017, many were expecting director/star Kenneth Branagh’s latest effort to be a flat-out bomb. The Agatha Christie whodunit was a sub-genre of film from a bygone era that most felt had no place in a world dominated by Marvel. But the all-star retelling of one of the most famous mysteries ever written was a surprise smash thanks to its all-star cast and top production values. Unfortunately, the director’s follow-up choice, 2022’s Death on the Nile, was the exact opposite. That movie was plagued by a scandal-filled cast, a shifting release date, and one of the weakest mysteries Christie ever wrote, all of which resulted in a lackluster movie experience. One more fortunately came with the fact that Branagh, still riding the success of Orient Express and his Oscar win for Belfast, was able to get his latest in the series, A Haunting in Venice, greenlit. While the movie might land somewhere in between the first two efforts for some, it should actually be considered Branagh’s finest hour in the world of Christie.
In A Haunting in Venice, a now-retired Hercule Poirot (Branagh) has resigned himself to a life that is quiet, yet unfulfilling. When American crime author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) shows up with a proposition for the legendary detective, Poirot reluctantly agrees. Soon, he finds himself attending a séance held by a medium (Michelle Yeoh) who has been hired by a wealthy woman (Kelly Reilly) looking to summon the spirit of her dead daughter. Also in attendance are a fragile doctor (Jamie Dornan), his young son (Jude Hill), and the dead girl’s former fiancé (Kyle Allen), among others. As expected, a dead body suddenly enters the picture, sending Poirot into a mystery that will test both his detective skills as well as his sanity.
As was the case with the first two outings, Branagh has ensured that A Haunting in Venice is a visual wonder. The director has proudly boasted in the past of how he’s employed David Lean-like camera techniques while insisting he be allowed to shoot on film. This means that his Christie turns all promise to be rich on the technical side, regardless of whatever the quality of the mystery itself may be. Here, Branagh has crafted the most intoxicatingly stunning film of the three. A Haunting in Venice is ripe with wonderfully dizzying camera angles, rich cinematography, and a sound design that evokes its own kind of fear, instantly ranking itself as one of the year’s best. Adding to the atmosphere is the crumbling palazzo where the entire film takes place. Draped in despair, faded elegance, and a slight menace, the movie’s physical setting gives off an otherworldly sense of place, one that bears only a passing resemblance to the real world. After heavily favoring green screen for his previous Poirot efforts, Branagh’s use of practical sets and effects both work wonders when it comes to making A Haunting in Venice a visceral and singularly chilling affair.
Of course, all the cinematic style in the world wouldn’t be worth much in a film such as this without a compelling narrative waiting to be solved, which thankfully, A Haunting in Venice has. Based on the novel “Hallowe’en Party,” the movie begins life as a story of loneliness and regret, two very common Christie themes. When the aforementioned séance and subsequent scares start to ramp up at the beginning of the second act, the movie unleashes a skillfully executed balance between horror and mystery as Poirot fearfully clings to his instincts even as he’s forced to question the reality of what he sees around him. This allows for some great acting moments for Branagh as he shows Poirot at what may be his most vulnerable to date. Dead bodies and ghostly apparitions (especially that of the deceased daughter) take turns as the detective works to uncover if there is a flesh and blood killer at play, or something truly unexplainable. To its credit, A Haunting in Venice doesn’t rely too heavily on standard jump scares but instead depends on the eeriness of the story and the tortured souls at the center of it to carry its audience all the way through.
After getting much flack for his version of the famous fictional detective in the first two go-arounds (mainly from biased fans of David Suchet’s incarnation), Branagh’s performance here is something of a revelation compared to his previous times at bat. Gone are the humorous quips from the first movie and the theatrics of the second and in their place is a portrait of a much-revered man who has lost a part of himself. Branagh plays Poirot as something of a weary shell of a human being whose internal battles see him searching for purpose. The actor’s physicality, vocal inflections, and overly tense look in his eyes help to give a special depth to the character that hasn’t been there before.
The outstanding supporting cast is well assembled and each member manages to give some solid character moments that add to the mood and humanity of the story in their separate ways. Among the standouts are Fey (never more sharp and quick-witted), Dornan (truly devastating), Hill (poetic and heartbreaking), and Reilly (so compelling as perhaps the film’s most tragic figure). The most enjoyable performance, however, comes from Yeoh who makes the most of her scenes, playing her character as a woman who genuinely believes what she’s selling before revealing her own agenda.
A Haunting in Venice doesn’t end without a couple of glaring issues. The movie’s black-and-white sequences still feel a little too modern and polished, while a few of the characters’ fates are tied up a little too neatly, especially given the largely grounded tone that’s been held all the way through. Overall, however, it’s fair to say that Branagh has finally gotten it right. The filmmaker lucked out the first time out with a solid mystery and a cast that both worked in sync to bring out that movie’s emotional side. Here, it feels like the director himself is finally in tune with the human element of Christie and has crafted a film with the kind of character and nuance that always served as the author’s secret weapons. Many would be justified in calling Branagh’s past interpretations of the famous writer’s works as more tribute than adaptation. This time, however, he’s gotten to the source’s heart and finally understands the difference.