A Haunting in Venice review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Having never been a fan of Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of the mystery-solving Hercule Poirot, A Haunting in Venice is easily the best of his three films. It feels as though the director/actor improves a little more with each entry. Murder on the Orient Express was far too stuffy and low-key to appreciate the original story. Death on the Nile had its moments, but also messy aspects of casting and shot choices. A Haunting in Venice is the first of the Branagh films that feels like he’s come into his own with Christie’s character.
It helps that Branagh dares to assemble a more original story, this one loosely based on Halloween Party. Instead of a Halloween murder occurring at an estate, it happens in a creepy old manner in Venice. Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is called out of retirement when the novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) challenges him to dispel a seance on Halloween night. He indulges the debunking by attending a grieving family having lost a daughter to suicide one year ago, believed to be part of a curse of the former owners. Trying to speak with the dead girl’s spirit is Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a medium that Poirot doesn’t buy for one moment. That is until Joyce dies, and Poirot starts seeing strange things around the creepy Venice residence as a storm rages outside.
The look and feel of this film work well for Branagh’s keen choice of a decaying Venice building that becomes flooded with water and offers no escape. The many shots range from Dutch angles to creepy close-ups to disorienting angles from the floor. Branagh nails it in terms of setting up an eerie setting for Poirot’s case, even if he does go for a jumpscare too many. That said, if a jumpscare is for something genuinely scary, I don’t feel as cheated, and there’s plenty to be terrified about in this house. On the other hand, there are some questionable choices in the soundtrack, as with an odd tonal choice for the dark scene of Poirot unearthing the home’s catacombs.
The investigation proceeds quickly enough with slick editing and prompt assertions by Poirot that keep the running time at a relatively crisp 100 minutes. After all the bells and whistles of a spooky puppet show and the horror movie hallmarks, the mystery of who is killing people and staging a curse becomes compelling. The horror angle is maintained by Poirot doubting his abilities when he starts noticing himself slowly losing his mind. He starts seeing ghosts in strange places and forgets himself when leaving the water on in the bathroom. It makes the character more compelling that his faith is questioned as he struggles to find a killer amid the party guests.
The supporting cast works well enough for this type of story. Fey doesn’t overdo Oliver and has plenty of chances to go over the top with her scheming character. She resonates well with this Poirot, and they play off each other decently. Camille Cottin does an apt job displaying her fear for this night of death, Jamie Dornan oozes paranoia as a doctor still haunted by his past, and the young Jude Hill plays almost like a stern, straight man as the youngest and most collected person in the room. The suspects are colorful and reactive, and it never feels like one of them is passive in this murder mystery. How could they be? There’s roaring waters and thunder outside with a killer (or killers) cavorting about a home without escape. That’s enough to put even the most jaded of killers on edge.
A Haunting in Venice feels like Branagh has learned enough from his other Poirot movies to make his version work. Even the mustache feels less enlarged and silly than when Branagh first stepped into the role. More importantly, this film plays with the material rather than sticking to the strict word-for-word adaptation like a stuffy play. If Branagh wants to keep playing with this material, he should at least take more creative liberties like this to make his Poirot more his creation than a rusty rendition. Thankfully, he does just that with this solid murder mystery.