20th Century Reviews

A Haunting in Venice Review: Kenneth Branagh Breaks with Formula to Craft Poirot’s Best Case Yet

*This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.*

It hasn’t been very long since we’ve last had a Hercule Poirot murder mystery, but Kenneth Branagh is returning with his world-famous mustache in A Haunting in Venice. Although to be fair, Death on the Nile was delayed several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, should Branagh continue to make Poirot adaptations in the late-stage period of his career, I wouldn’t mind one bit. At the beginning of his directorial career, Branagh rose to fame by helming several William Shakespeare adaptations. Now, he’s got a penchant for Agatha Christie and seems extremely comfortable playing Poirot, especially coming off the heels of the incredibly successful television series starring David Suchet.

But in A Haunting in Venice, he breaks with form and completely reinvents its structure. For some viewers, that could be a risky gamble. After establishing a rather conventional but successful formula with Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, Branagh delves deep into supernatural horror with A Haunting in Venice, positing Poirot’s case as one committed by a spirit. After many years of “retirement” from being a private detective, Poirot seems to crawl back into his natural element after witnessing the murder of Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a spirit medium who was invited at the request of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). Drake had been wanted to communicate with her daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who allegedly committed suicide.

Alicia’s spirit seems to possess Reynolds, pushing her to her demise, but Poirot does not believe in such things. However, he starts to see visions of a dead Alicia haunting the house, which proves him difficult to keep a rational and distanced viewpoint in the murder case. But no matter, with the aid of his bodyguard (Riccardo Scarmacio), Poirot locks everyone in the house until he finds who committed Reynolds’ murder.

Once again, the conceit is simple, but it proves itself complicated when Poirot is confronted with supernatural visions, and that’s where the fun begins. The 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile had an extremely lavish, almost CinemaScope-like aesthetic, where everyone bathed in luxuriant period costumes in ebullient, larger-than-life sets. In A Haunting in Venice, Branagh throws all this out of the window. First, he changes the aspect ratio from 2.39:1 to 1.85:1, boxing in the characters closer than ever before and naturally giving the “haunted” house the claustrophobic feel it needs to succeed.

On several occasions, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos makes us feel like Poirot is carrying the camera as he moves from one place to another inside the house, discovering new rooms and environments that weren’t previously discerned. Zambarloukos also plays with light and shadow, consistently making every room as eerie and uncomfortable as possible. I foolishly thought the film was marketed as a large-scale supernatural horror film to draw in younger crowds but that it would be a relatively tame finished product.

It’s not the case here – the film is consistently scary, even if it’s mostly jumpscares. Branagh is having fun playing with several horror tropes, regardless of whether you see them coming. We’ve never seen him go into full-fledged horror before. But props to him for always finding new ways to keep Poirot fresh and relevant, especially when this could’ve been as conventional as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score also locks in the atmosphere, and it’s a particular thrill to observe it on an IMAX screen. The sound design, in particular, may make you jump occasionally. It certainly got me, especially during a tense bathroom scene in which Poirot sees (or not) the ghost of Alicia. The way it’s shot and edited allows for a rather bone-chilling final effect. Within the film’s context, it works wonders.

Branagh also assembles a remarkable group of actors to lead A Haunting in Venice, from Tina Fey and Kyle Allen to Camille Cottin and a Belfast reunion with Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill. They all give impassioned performances, particularly Hill, who impresses greatly as a child who may know more than meets the eye and fondly appreciates anything supernatural. Fey is, as expected, the film’s comic relief, but has a more serious side to her that we rarely see in any of the pictures she did so far that comes out during its thrilling final act, where Poirot raises the curtain and tells the group who committed this terrible murder. Yeoh is underused as Joyce, though she makes the most of her limited time on screen and especially has fun during its séance, where she gets to flex horror muscles we’ve never seen from her before. At 60 years old and fresh off an Oscar win with Everything Everywhere All at Once, it was about time.

The movie may still adopt a conventional Poirot structure in how Branagh presents the suspects individually, and it’s quite easy to discern who did it, even if you didn’t read Christie’s Hallowe’en Party. Sometimes, the film thinks it’s outsmarting you by creating as many red herrings as possible, but as soon as we get introduced to every character, it’s quite possible to guess who the perpetrator is correctly. But did it matter? If the rest of the film was lousy as hell, maybe. But it isn’t. A Haunting in Venice is an incredible change in pace and form for Branagh’s Poirot, breathing new life into the franchise just as it was about to go stale. I laud Branagh for taking the franchise’s biggest swing yet, and I sincerely hope he makes a thousand more of these. I’ll watch all of them, even if we may not have enough champagne…to fill the Nile! Sorry, this one was easy.

A Haunting in Venice is now playing in theatres.

About Post Author

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal, with a specialization in Video Game Studies. He is now currently enrolled in a graduate diploma in Journalism.

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