- Hans Weber
- December 6, 2023
‘A Haunting in Venice’ movie review: Branagh’s third Poirot a scary good mystery
Hercule Poirot gets an unexpected fright in A Haunting in Venice, director-star Kenneth Branagh‘s third go-around as Agatha Christie‘s famed detective that opens in Prague cinemas and worldwide this weekend. Bolstered by some gorgeous production design and some genuine scares, this one is a delightfully spooky treat, just in time for Halloween.
A Haunting in Venice follows Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, and is immediately distinguished by one fact: unlike those previous outings, this one has not been previously adapted for the big screen. Christie’s original Hallowe’en Party was turned into an episode of the ITV series starring David Suchet, but for general audiences this mystery should be fresher than its predecessors.
This Poirot outing is also significantly more modest than Branagh’s previous two films, and lacks the star-studded casts and over-the-top visual effects that turned the earlier films into something akin to franchise-building blockbusters. For that reason, A Haunting in Venice is also an improvement on both of the earlier films, and an entirely satisfying one-off mystery all by itself.
In A Haunting in Venice, the world-famous Poirot is now a retired detective living in the titular Italian metropolis in 1947, satisfied with his twice-daily delivery of pastries by gondola. Legions of fans attempt to get him to solve their own mysteries, but bodyguard Vitale (John Wick: Chapter 2‘s Riccardo Scamarcio) dispatches them into the canals.
But as typically happens, the unexpected appearance of an old friend, novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), disrupts the detective’s fleeting peace. Ariadne tells Poirot of a medium who has her convinced of genuine psychic abilities, Michelle Yeoh‘s Mrs. Reynolds, who just happens to be in Venice on Halloween night to conduct a séance at a former orphanage said to be haunted by the ghosts of children.
The séance is designed to evoke the spirit of one child in particular: Alicia Drake, the daughter of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who committed suicide after splitting with fiancé Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen). Or did she? Also attending the supernatural event are au pair Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), family doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), and Leslie’s son (Jude Hill).
Poirot is quick to dispel notions of Mrs. Reynold’s genuine abilities, but there’s soon a very real murder at this isolated Venice estate during the midst of a heavy rainstorm. And soon the detective is interviewing suspects one-by-one in an attempt to catch the killer before police arrive.
This all sounds like the usual Hercule Poirot affair, but here’s where A Haunting in Venice stands apart: there’s also a buildup of genuine supernatural events during the narrative, which Poirot himself experiences but cannot explain. The ghostly goings-on give the film an unusually eerie atmosphere for a detective story, and are neatly woven into the story by screenwriter Michael Green (Logan). The supernatural angle is absent from the source, but Christie would be proud.
Unrestrained from the shackles of making an effects-heavy blockbuster, A Haunting in Venice is Branagh at his most playful as a filmmaker, and the framing and composition of almost every shot stands out as an interesting choice. But the unusual camerawork also supports the narrative, and represents some of Branagh’s best work as a director since 1991’s underrated modern noir Dead Again.
Alongside some especially evocative interiors (the reveal of Alice’s bedroom is a wow), A Haunting in Venice also boasts terrific location filming throughout the streets and canals of its titular locale. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot all three Poirot adaptations for Branagh, but this one feels a lot more distinctive than its predecessors.
A Haunting in Venice hits cinemas with modest expectations after Death on the Nile failed to garner much praise, but this one is an improvement in just about every way. Bolstered by an unsettling backstory and evocative atmosphere, it lives up to Christie’s Hallowe’en Party.