"A Haunting in Venice" stars Kenneth Branagh, Kyle Allen, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Kelly Reilly, Riccardo Scamarcio, and Michelle Yeoh. Released on September 15, 2023, the film has Hercule Poirot solving a murder mystery at a seance.
The film was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed films such as "Henry V", "As You Like It", "Thor", "Murder on the Orient Express", and "Belfast". It is based on the 1969 book Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie. Even in retirement, you can't escape a case that needs solving, especially when you're a detective like Hercule Poirot. However, this particular murder mystery is unlike anything he's ever faced before. Kenneth Branagh has once again returned to the murderous world of Hercule Poirot to adapt what is seemingly the creepiest installment of Agatha Christie's mystery franchise. We've seen the detective solve these mysteries on a train and a boat. Next thing you'll know, he'll be solving one on an airplane sooner or later. Now, we'll see him discover the killer while confronting the supernatural. It's an interesting change of pace for Branagh's series of Poirot films, but is it welcoming enough to continue the misadventures of the iconic detective? Let's find out.
The story centers on Hercule Poirot (Branagh), a detective who recently retired in post-World War II Venice. He is eventually invited by his old friend, mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Fey), to attend a Halloween party at the palazzo of former opera singer Rowena Drake (Reilly), which holds a dark secret. This was followed by a seance led by medium and former war nurse Joyce Reynolds (Yeoh), resulting in unexplained occurrences haunting the group. To top it all off, one of the guests was murdered because why not? Hercule Poirot is now called back into action to find the killer and confront his belief in the supernatural.
I hadn't been immersed in the world of Hercule Poirot as much as I've been with Sherlock Holmes and even Basil of Baker Street from "The Great Mouse Detective". That is until I watched Branagh's 2017 adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express". It's far from the best murder mystery movie I've seen in theaters, but I can admit that it was the most stylish that Branagh has directed. Plus, he looks remarkably good with a mustache. Not even Holmes can solve this case of how Branagh keeps that mustache well-trimmed. I also enjoyed last year's "Death on the Nile" for similar reasons despite its pacing. They're the types of movies that don't offer anything new to the genre but are serviceable in their blends of old-fashioned elements and modern filmmaking techniques to please mystery fans old and new. So, of course, I was interested in seeing the detective's latest outing, which offers a creepy twist to the murder mystery narrative. Considering that we're celebrating Halloween early, it's fitting that this franchise is going down this terrifying route. However, what matters is whether this new direction is appropriately executed to revitalize the timeless whodunit tale.
Like the previous two films, "A Haunting in Venice" follows the usual murder mystery plot seen in other movies, in which Poirot searches for the killer in an international location. However, it stands out from its predecessors because it doesn't take place on a form of transportation. Instead, the film takes place in a building seemingly haunted by the spirits of dead children. So, if you're hoping for Poirot to use his detective skills on an airplane, you might want to wait for the next movie. With its location change and horror elements, "A Haunting in Venice" provides the challenge of delivering something different to Agatha Christie's universe while maintaining the elements that worked in Branagh's previous adaptations. It's a balance that could go overboard if done improperly, especially with its genre cliches flying around like a bunch of ghosts. Fortunately, Kenneth Branagh used these cliches to portray the best of both worlds effectively.
The film offers what one would expect from a mystery movie starring a detective: a compelling, old-fashioned whodunit that's as stylish as it is visually lively. Of course, it's not without a few creepy moments that make this the darker of the three films, including the spirits. However, those frightening scenarios aren't made just for show like most supernatural horror movies we have nowadays. Instead, they're used to drive its story involving grief, death, and faith. For the latter, we see Poirot losing his faith in humanity, forcing him to retire from his detective work. Amid the haunted mystery he's thrown in, Poirot sees himself attempting to regain that faith to find the murderer, even if it means believing in the paranormal. Is it an award-worthy portrayal of these themes like the arthouse horror movies before it? Unsurprisingly, no. Was I mildly entertained by how it is told? Indeed, I was.
The number of expeditions in the film does risk becoming a snooze fest for people who aren't into dialogue-heavy mystery movies. But, it was hardly an issue, unlike its predecessors, thanks to its pacing, cast, and Branagh's direction, which is still the franchise's highlight. I would consider "A Haunting in Venice" to be unique regarding Branagh's vision. Instead of a vibrant and immersive old-fashioned presentation seen in "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile", "A Haunting in Venice" goes for a Guillermo del Toro-esque presentation that's darkly lit and hauntingly atmospheric. Instead of relying on jump scares and CGI ghouls to frighten his audience, Branagh used the fear of the unknown and the movie's practical effects to provide discomfort and chills. Admittedly, it might not work for everyone, especially those wanting a fast-paced fright-fest involving ghosts and demons. However, the people willing to stick around, including me, would find the tactic a refreshing addition to the usual detective story, even though some of its elements could've been explored more, including Poirot's lack of faith.
Two additional aspects benefitted Branagh's filmmaking techniques: the cinematography and production design. "A Haunting in Venice" marks the latest collaboration between Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and the third Hercule Poirot movie they worked on together. Based on what I've seen from their previous collaborations, I can still see why they worked so well together. The cinematography maintains its immersion but also delivers some well-crafted Dutch angles that look almost different from the other Hercule Poirot films. It almost resembles an arthouse movie made for modern audiences. As for its settings, the sequences involving Venice are just as gorgeous and serene as the film's predecessors. However, the palazzo allowed the production design to truly shine. From its bleak lighting to the old-school aesthetics, the palazzo reflects a haunted house attraction from an amusement park that's fun and creepy.
Finally, we have the film's decent cast. As usual, Kenneth Branagh proves to be a solid filmmaker and a talented actor in front of the camera. As far as I'm aware, his portrayal of Hercule Poirot remains one of the most effective roles in his career, and his performance further validates that theory. Branagh's take on the detective displays the intelligence and commitment he has in solving a case, but he also provides a sense of vulnerability that affects his journey, with "A Haunting in Venice" being no different. It's far from emotionally engaging, but it's interesting enough to make Poirot a fitting cinematic version of Christie's well-known detective. Tina Fey was also suitable as Ariadne Oliver, who serves as Poirot's partner in the case, with her chemistry with Branagh being one of the things keeping the narrative from being too dull. There's also young Jude Hill, best known for his lead role in Branagh's "Belfast", who plays Leopold Ferrier, the son of Jamie Dornan's Dr. Leslie Ferrier. While he didn't capitalize on that success with his performance as Leopold, Hill does show signs that he's capable of doing more roles like this.
Overall, "A Haunting in Venice" is another stylish and compelling chapter in the Hercule Poirot Cinematic Universe that benefitted from Kenneth Branagh's vision and portrayal of the Belgian detective. Regarding the narrative, it's no mystery that it delivers exactly what you expect from a movie involving a murder case, let alone a Poirot film. With its familiar narrative elements and hit-and-miss execution of specific character moments, there's nothing in "A Haunting in Venice" that will trounce every mystery movie before it. Luckily, it easily compensates for it by being engaging and creepily unsettling, thanks to the addition of its horror elements. From its all-star cast to Branagh's impressive direction, the film is a refreshing and spooky take on the franchise that's also the best of the three. If you enjoyed the previous two Poirot movies and can tolerate specific horror-themed sequences, this is another case worth taking.