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.
A HAUNTING IN VENICE, or How Hercule Poirot Got His Groove Back….
As someone who grew up in the UK observing David Suchet’s unparalleled take on the character, I approached Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express with hope and trepidation. The film impressed with it’s style and polish, but fell short of greatness. Two years ago Death on the Nile ran into similar issues while also being weighted down some baggage surrounding members of the cast. While flawed, both showcased Branagh’s passion for these ventures into Agatha Christie’s famous literary creation, as well as his adeptness at bringing the titular star to life. A series of movies that entertain, and perhaps feel like a season staple for family viewing. A Haunting in Venice, continues this trend (although not necessarily centered around the holiday you might thing), while also delivering Branagh’s most accomplished and adventurous adaptation yet.
Scripted by Michael Green (the previous two entries, Blade Runner 2047, Logan), Haunting is a loose adaptation of Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party. The era, location, and some character tweaks makeup the bulk of the changes. The opening sees Poirot seconded to Venice, exiling himself from the public, and from the sleuthing pursuits that have made him a worldwide name. His occasional jaunts around the city are facilitated by an an Italian bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio), who intercepts the advances of those who dare to seek out the detective’s services. One day, old friend and crime novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) turns up on his doorstep. Her series of crime books inspired by Poirot’s exploits made them both a household name, and in search of inspiration she has stumbled across something she cannot explain, and is looking to puncture the mystery with Poirot’s perspective. She paints a case intriguing enough to draw him out of retirement, at least for one night. A family enveloped by tragedy, a long rumored haunted location, and a mystic who demonstrates unerring insight into hidden events. During a Halloween night séance, an attendee is identified as being responsible for a believed suicide in this home one year earlier. Shortly after, a guest is found murdered. Connecting the two, Poirot seals the storm lashed palazzo, holding all survivors within its walls overnight, as he looks to uncover the truth being both deaths.
At the root of things is a young girl, Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson) a bout of mental illness, apparently threw herself rom the balcony of her bedroom, into the treacherous canals of Venice below. More than a crime tale, it’s a ghost story. The guests at that circle, all haunted by the loss of this girl, or by something else from their past. The grieving mother, Rowena (Kelly Reilly), the housekeeper Olga (Camille Cottin), even her fired up ex-fiancé Maxime (Kyle Allen). Also in attendance is the family doctor, Leslie (Jamie Dornan), a man traumatized from his time one the front lines and now heavily reliant on his precocious young son Leopold (Jude Hill) for emotional support. Amidst it all is this is the beguiling medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), and her assistants Nicholas (Ali Khan) and Desdemona (Emma). Seems to puncture the veil between worlds in an eerie sequence that sets this whodunnit in motion.
Refreshingly, this isn’t a mystery that isn’t overly complicated. Instead, these people and the visceral emotions of it all front and center. These haunting traumas run from the loss of a child, to the loss of a love, PTSD after serving in World War 2, and even one of the guests own ability to commune with the dead. Even Poirot himself is not immune to the cloud that hangs over us and affects our perceptions, our insights, and our actions. Bringing his own pain and disconnect from life to the proceedings ties him to events emotionally, and also connects back to his mythology laid down in the previous two chapters. The cast all turn in performances that don’t just meet, but enhance the tone and timbre of the film. Branagh in particular has this down pat, peeling back new layer’s of this character’s psyche, and with the wry comedy he delivers proving the lifeblood of the film. Yeoh’s monologue early in the film is a standout, Dornan manages to pack an emotional heft into his performance, and Reilly’s assured turn should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed her career.
It’s a tight film, perhaps overly so. While a 104 minute runtime is appreciated, some of the scenes and character arcs would benefit from a little breathing room. This aside, the snappy pace really adds to the rather frenetic feel as the tale unfolds in the dark, twisting confines of this palazzo. Dark but without losing detail, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos showcases the stylish but minimal production design that reflects the melancholic mood of the piece. Branagh threads that period feel with a pulpy horror lilt, wheeling out old tropes such as jump scares, ominous bangs, lingering shots on dark corners, sheets draped over statues, jump scares, and good old sights in the mirror. Handheld cameras, wide-lensed shots, snappy transitions, and Dutch angles add to the off-kilter feeling pervades the film, and Poirot’s place within it. In front of and from behind the camera, this is clearly a labor of love for Branagh who by shaking off some of the formality of the series, hits his stride with a Poirot outing that is intriguing, playful, and unabashedly fun.
A Haunting in Venice opens on September 13th