For his third outing as Hercule Poirot, Kenneth Branagh, together with screenwriter Michael Green, made the shrewd decision to select one of Agatha Christie’s least read and most tepidly reviewed later novels for adaptation. Almost nobody going into A Haunting in Venice will know ahead of time whodunit. But whether they will care whodunit is another matter.
Based on Dame Agatha’s 1969 Hallowe’en Party, this creepy caper brings Branagh the actor in conjunction with Branagh the director once again, plopping Poirot down in Venice. Although Christie’s book unfolds in London, few should complain about the decision to relocate to the city where Don’t Look Now, The Comfort of Strangers, and Curtis Harrington’s The Assignation—choice thrillers, all—were shot.
The setting is a cavernous palazzo after World War II. Poirot, living in the kind of genteel self-exile that most of us dreamt of during the COVID lockdown, gets called out of retirement by an old friend (Tina Fey, playing it straight). He’s summarily drawn into a séance by a famed clairvoyant (a silver-haired Michelle Yeoh), with unsettling results, and soon the bodies begin to mount up. Does the ghost of a teenage girl who died horribly years earlier have anything to do with it? Or does the roster of suspects—including a former opera singer (Kelly Reilly), a PTSD- addled doctor (Jamie Dornan), and his precocious, Edgar Allan Poe reading son (Jude Hill)—include a murderer?
All credit to Branagh for reviving the classic murder mystery, even before Rian Johnson’s Knives Out series made it hip. In 2017, his Murder on the Orient Express, brought the fusty genre into the 21st century by ginning it up with modern attitudes and fashionable movie stars. The follow-up, Death on the Nile, was equally lavish but only half as entertaining. Unfortunately, the third is a bust. A Haunting in Venice not only looks cheaper than its predecessors, but the thrills are cut-rate, too. The possibility of a child ghost stalking the grounds of a former orphanage is never fully taken advantage of, apart from a tepid shock involving an image in a washroom mirror. The séance goes full tilt with spinning chairs and slamming doors, suggesting yet another Exorcist knockoff.
The movie slides into a comfortable groove during the final third, and the cast—including the extravagantly whiskered actor-director—tries hard to elevate the tired material. Camille Cottin is especially fine as a sympathetic housekeeper. Branagh carries over some of his cast and crew from his Oscar-winning Belfast—Dornan and Hill, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (who brings the googly-eyed lenses again)—and costume designer Sammy Differ’s cloaks and Venetian masks are attractive.
It seems a squandered opportunity, though, to wed the English ghost story (one of the Brits’ chief contributions to world literature) with a classical murder mystery and produce nothing but a few cheap thrills. As one character opines, “Campfire stories make life less scary.” A Haunting in Venice has the feel of a cold chimney rather than a crackling fire.
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