‘A Haunting in Venice’ Is Kenneth Branagh’s Best Poirot Film Yet, but Still Falls a Bit Short
Despite great acting and cinematography, “A Haunting in Venice” feels uncommitted to any genre.
Kenneth Branagh’s latest film, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s best-selling detective, Hercule Poirot, premiered last week. Movies and television series featuring Poirot more often than not fail to live up to the greatness of Christie’s novels featuring Poirot’s detective work. I went into “A Haunting in Venice” with low expectations but left the theater pleasantly surprised.
Unlike Branagh’s two previous renditions of Poirot, “A Haunting in Venice” is a total reinvention of a Christie novel, “Hallowe’en Party.” Instead of attempting to portray the plot of the novel, the movie used its character names to create an entirely different story. The decision to create an entirely new story is actually to this movie’s benefit. For die-hard Christie fans, it means that watching the movie actually felt like uncovering a mystery, compared to the incredibly famous “Murder on the Orient Express,” where the twist is already quite well known. Because the film is not wedded to its source material, the writers of the film took more creative liberty. In previous Poirot films from Branagh, to amp up the stakes and to make a famous story feel new, writers added unnecessary scenes — such as the completely out-of-character chase scene with Poirot and the villain in “Murder on the Orient Express.” The story in “A Haunting in Venice” feels like it can stand on its own.
The film opens with Poirot’s retirement in the late 1940s in Venice, Italy, which is disturbed by Tina Fey’s Ariadne Oliver. Oliver urges Poirot out of retirement to attempt to debunk a psychic medium, played by Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh, in a supposedly haunted house on All Hallow’s Eve. The night takes a sinister turn when a storm strikes, leaving all of the party members stranded in the house, and suddenly people start falling dead.
Branagh’s previous Poirot films, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile,” were ultimately disappointing. In order to add more suspense, writers changed parts of the plot or added scenes, but doing so detracted from the much beloved mysteries. Other Christie fans’ complaints include Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot, regarding both his perspective as director and actor, playing Poirot. Aside from how distracting Poirot’s gigantic mustache is, he also inserts character quirks that do not exist in the books, such as his obsession with eating two eggs of the exact same size each day.
Although Branagh’s Poirot still has a ridiculously large mustache, Branagh did tone down Poirot’s quirks, making Poirot’s character significantly more realistic. For example, he had a bodyguard instead of beating people up himself as he did on “Murder on the Orient Express.” This felt more in line with the core of Poirot as a character — a classic detective figure who is able to solve all of his mysteries with his brain, not his fists.
Where “A Haunting in Venice” truly shines is in the eeriness that follows the whole movie.
The cinematography added a totally new dimension to the film, utilizing a variety of styles, with the camera panning back and forth between Dutch tilts to fish-eye lens shots to head-on shots throughout the film. The rapid changing of these angles made everything seem just slightly off — it kept me completely uneasy the entire time. For example, in one conversation between Poirot and the psychic, the camera would face the psychic head on as she spoke, and then it would switch to a shot above Poirot as he spoke. It felt dizzying and bizarre, much like the atmosphere of the movie as a whole.
Adding to the amazing camera work are the fantastic performances of Michelle Yeoh as Joyce Reynolds, the psychic medium, and Kelly Reilly as Rowena Drake, the owner of the apparently haunted house. Yeoh’s spinning and screaming as she seemingly became possessed by a ghost was absolutely fantastic and haunting. Reilly’s portrayal of Drake was perfectly mysterious, sympathetic and off-kilter. Their two dramatic performances are part of what made this movie so enticing to me — their characters were odd, just erring on the side of the macabre, in the way that horror movie characters should be.
The cinematography and acting make “A Haunting in Venice” a spooky Halloween movie, but it feels like it’s unable to fully commit to that style. Between the jump scares and the unsettling aura of the whole film, there were comedic moments that felt completely out of place, and it took me out of the fearful atmosphere it had so carefully crafted.
Despite Fey’s great performance as Ariadne Oliver, I can’t help but wonder if she was the best choice for the character. It seemed like the writers felt compelled to take advantage of Fey’s great comedic timing and give her more humorous lines that ultimately detracted from the spookiness of the film. Halloween movies are typically either scary or campy, and if “A Haunting in Venice” wanted to be scary, then the comedy was unnecessary.
Aside from the horror vibe, the movie storyline was not that complicated, which some might take as a negative. If the expectations are for a crazy film with tons of twists and turns, then “A Haunting in Venice” might disappoint. However, I would much rather see a story that is simpler but makes sense and wraps up cleanly than see a story that, in attempting to add more mystery, turns into something with tons of plot holes and loose ends. In the end, “A Haunting in Venice” also offers a twist and a reveal that Christie and Poirot are so well known for, ultimately leaving me generally satisfied.
Overall, “A Haunting in Venice” is by far Branagh’s best version of Poirot. Despite some genre stumbles, this was a fantastic Halloween movie featuring a great cast, with a storyline that kept me engaged the whole time.