Kenneth Branagh clearly relishes playing the legendary Agatha Christie creation Hercule Poirot.
He first took on the role in his 2017 adaptation of the Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express, tapping into a thirst for adult-oriented entertainment that went over well domestically and internationally. He followed up with the sequel Death on the Nile to lesser results. While that film carved out a more prominent, darker role for Branagh to sink his teeth into, it was still plagued with multiple curses stemming from COVID-19, Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox, its cast (Armie Hammer and a much-ridiculed performance by Gal Gadot), and admittedly lackluster visual effects (any scene involving the pyramids). World-wide grosses barely covered the significantly higher production cost, but box office dollars aside, neither film wowed me.
So now, Branagh returns to Poirot and to the director’s chair for a third time with A Haunting in Venice, loosely based on the 1969 Christie novel “Hallowe’en Party.” For me, the third time is definitely a charm. This take on Poirot and a Christie murder mystery feels infinitely freer with a genuinely spooky story well served by a very talented cast. Branagh steps back into his early supernatural thriller days of Dead Again to great effect, giving us luxurious vistas of one of the world’s most beautiful cities before claustrophobically locking us in a haunted Venetian residence.
A Haunting in Venice benefits from the sense of the unknown, thanks to the relatively unsung original novel. Each turn is a genuine sense of discovery from the initial murder to the shocking secrets along the way. Branagh clearly had a ball directing the film, and the fun is infectious.
We begin in Venice with Branagh’s Poirot in retirement. Masses line up outside of his apartment, begging for assistance with their various personal mysteries. It’s only when old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) comes knocking that Poirot is drawn back into a mystery. She implores him to join her for a seance conducted by the mysterious Joyce Reynolds (recent Best Actress Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh) in an old house haunted by the spirits of dozens of children allegedly left to die within years prior. There, he meets troubled doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his son Leopold (Dornan’s Belfast son Jude Hill) and Rowena Drake (Yellowstone’s Kelly Reilly) whose child may or may not have been murdered by vengeful ghosts.
Naturally, a murder happens at the seance, and Poirot must face his own supernatural doubts while uncovering the killer.
As I’ve mentioned, I was not familiar with the story behind “Hallowe’en Party,” and that greatly helped my affection for A Haunting in Venice. With Orient Express and Death on the Nile, I’d already known the identity of the killers, which takes a bit of the fun out of an Agatha Christie-based experience. But more than that, Branagh himself seems to relish the throwback to his early thriller days. Once Poirot enters the Venetian haunted mansion, he uses nearly every cinematic trick to catch his audience off guard in thrilling ways. The first 45 minutes or so I consider some of the very best directorial work Branagh has ever done. It’s only once the story begins to settle into the necessary mechanics of a murder mystery plot do things start to feel a little more mundane.
This time around, there are no controversial performances for audiences to mock. The casting of Tina Fey in a rare dramatic turn works wonders here as she brings a welcome vitality to any scene she’s in. Hers is a seemingly effortless performance in which she appears to coast on charm and wit. I was pleasantly surprised by what she brought to the role, leaving me always wanting more. Yeoh is effectively mysterious and creepy in her role, and Dornan nicely acquits himself in a very different take on troubled fatherhood than his stellar work in Belfast. Reilly also gives a nice performance as the grieving mother, longing to reconnect with her dead child. It’s a stellar cast of actors working with a director who knows how to handle large ensemble casts.
Those performances coupled with Haris Zambarloukos’s (Belfast) luscious cinematography and Oscar-winner Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (Joker) eerily effective score elevate A Haunting in Venice beyond what we’ve come to expect from Branagh’s Christie adaptations. And good for him. I love seeing a director have such a great time with genre material. It gives them the opportunity to take risks and big swings with their vision of the material.
And that fun and freedom nearly always translates to a great experience for the audience.
There’s no mystery in that.
A Haunting in Venice opens nationwide Friday, September 15.