Poirot’s Haunting in Venice Return is Cracking Good Fun
Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has retired to Venice. He’s hired retired policeman Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio) to aggressively shoo away anyone trying to engage his services, which Vitale does with understatedly aggressive zeal. But celebrated mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) is one of Poirot’s oldest friends and most ardent admirers, and the former detective is happy to end his self-imposed isolation to meet with her when she arrives unannounced at his front door.
So begins A Haunting in Venice, and after two fine, entertaining, but nowhere near outstanding attempts to bring author Agatha Christie’s most famous literary character to life (Murder on the Orient Express, Death in Venice), director and star Branagh finally hits one out of the park. Boasting a wonderful script by series veteran Michael Green (Logan), an outstanding ensemble, and superb technical facets, this suspenseful adaptation of Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party is one of 2023’s most captivating surprises.
The setup is a séance performed by the beguiling Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). Oliver can’t decipher how she does her tricks of the trade, and she preys on Poirot’s vanity to get him on the case. Mrs. Reynolds has been hired by former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) to contact the spirit of her recently deceased daughter, who was supposedly driven to suicide by the ghosts of the murdered children who are rumored to dwell in her spacious Venetian home.
After a lot of whiz and quite a bit of bang, there’s of course a murder, and with a ranging storm keeping the police off of the canals, it’s obviously up to Poirot to bring the killer to justice and prove there’s nothing supernatural going on. The remaining suspects are a typically eclectic and cinematically attractive bunch, portrayed by a collection of familiar faces (Jamie Dornan, Camille Cottin, breakout Belfast youngster Jude Hill) and charming relative newcomers (Emma Laird, Ali Khan, Kyle Allen).
It was nice watching an adaptation whose source material I was unfamiliar with. The bad news is that it turns out this isn’t one of Christie’s more adventurous mysteries, and it’s honestly pretty easy to follow the clues and figure out who the murderer is. But the reasons behind the killings? Who is pulling the strings? The series of events that lead to the evening’s carnage? None of that I knew beforehand, and seeing Branagh place those puzzle pieces on the board with such skillful cunning was a pleasure.
What’s also pretty great is watching the filmmaker dip his toe (if ever so slightly) back into the horror waters for the first time since his decidedly uneven attempt to bring Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the big screen way back in 1994. Branagh appears to be much more confident handling the genre’s ins and outs this time around, and it’s clear he’s taking giddy delight in dropping Poirot into this realm of ghosts and demons. There are several outstanding scare sequences, not the least of which is the initial murder that sets everything into motion. It’s a gruesomely delicious jolt to the senses that brought a massive smile to my face.
As usual for one of Branagh’s films, the technical facets are excellent. What helps this effort stand out, however, is the emphasis on practical sets and makeup effects. There is little to no large-scale digital trickery here, so unlike Murder on the Orient Express and especially Death on the Nile, there is not a single moment where the backgrounds look cartoonishly fake. The production design crafted by veteran John Paul Kelly (The Theory of Everything) is particularly outstanding, as is Joker Oscar-winner Hildur Guðnadóttir’s robustly thrilling score.
Best of all is the magnificent cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos, a frequent Branagh collaborator (he’s worked on everything with the director from Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit on, including both of his previous Christie adaptations). I admittedly had my doubts about why this film needed to be shot for an IMAX presentation. But I shouldn’t have worried. From shadowy Dutch-angled closeups to shimmery black-and-white flashbacks, the atmosphere Zambarloukos manages to create is out of this world. There is an ethereal uncertainty to his framings that fits the piece perfectly, and if it were possible, I’d rent out an IMAX screen just so I could watch the film again without sound, only so I could marvel at the images without any other sensory intrusion fracturing my attention.
I could go on, especially about Fey and Hill (they steal the show), but I think I’m going to leave things there. Branagh has made his best Poirot adventure yet, and even if the central mystery leaves a little something to be desired, that does not make the experience of watching the Belgian sleuth work his magic any less enjoyable. A Haunting in Venice is cracking good fun.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)