In the eyes of Agatha Christie’s long-lasting literary icon, Hercule Poirot, honesty is the best policy. To this end, if I were to be interrogated by Poirot, I would have to admit a simple truth: I have largely not enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s take on the legendary detective. As someone who grew up in a home surrounded by first printings of Agatha Christie’s novels, I adore Christie’s work and found little to love in Branagh’s adaptations of two of her most popular (read: most widely adapted) novels, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile.”
However, where those two films were increasingly, often garishly bombastic in size and scope, Branagh’s third Christie adaptation, “A Haunting in Venice,” is a delightfully moody and fittingly spooky breath of fresh air.
TOP 5 THINGS ABOUT THIS MOVIE
5. The Hook
The sheer creative verve and ambition on display in even the opening moments of “A Haunting in Venice” begets a mystery unto itself. How exactly did producer/director/star Kenneth Branagh get his groove back? The answer, it seems, is “Belfast.”
After years of working in the realm of larger blockbuster productions and experiencing two particularly arduous and troubled large-scale shoots back-to-back (the ill-fated “Artemis Fowl” and “Death on the Nile”), Branagh decided to make a small-scale semi-autobiographical film about his childhood, which resulted in the Academy Award-winning “Belfast.” The experience of making “Belfast” seems to have genuinely relit a burning passion within Branagh for cinematic storytelling, as “A Haunting in Venice” has far and away the most refined craftsmanship of any of these Poirot-centric films.
Rather than a cumbersome, bloated work, “A Haunting in Venice” is taut, focused, and exacting in its precision. Adapting one of Christie’s lesser-known and latter books (the delightful “Hallowe’en Party” from 1969) is also a wise call, allowing Branagh to take much greater creative reign. In transplanting the story to Venice (the novel takes place in England), Branagh leans all the way into the horror elements inherent to the story and the setting. Fascinatingly, “A Haunting in Venice” even goes so far as to pinpoint the relationship between Christie’s murder mysteries and the Italian Giallo horror films, which they helped to inspire.
4. The Score
Another enormous benefit to the total stylistic and tonal turnabout of “A Haunting in Venice” from the prior two installments of the series is the musical score created by Hildur Guðnadóttir. The Emmy and Academy Award-winning composer who has been behind such works as “Chernobyl,” “Tár,” and “Joker” brings an entirely different and altogether innovative approach to the proceedings.
While the scores of both “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile” were by no means bad, they were fairly rote and predictable. They were full-blown, Hollywood-sized orchestrations for period-piece films that sounded exactly like what one might think they would sound like. By contrast, Guðnadóttir’s score for “A Haunting in Venice” is invasive and intimate. The sparser, leaner arrangements pair with unconventional audio production to create a score that works genuine wonders throughout the film.
3. Weak Spot: The Writing
Alright, look, if there’s one bone to pick with “A Haunting in Venice,” it has to do with the script itself. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have collaborated across all three of these films now, and there are certain shortcomings from the other films that do indeed carry over into this one. Chiefly making Poirot the central character of these stories.
I completely understand the inclination, given that Poirot is the name audiences know and also the character who Branagh himself is playing. Still, Christie’s novels never featured Poirot as their protagonist. Instead, the protagonist would always be an entirely different character, with Poirot acting as a secondary character who could then come crashing into the story itself. This fashion of murder-mystery cinematic storytelling has been done exceedingly well, exceedingly recently in Rian Johnson’s own Agatha Christie-inspired “Knives Out” films, and it only makes the issue here all the more glaring.
There’s plenty to love about Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot, but his penchant for delivering big thesis statement-laden speeches at the end of each film is not one of them. Ultimately, every other aspect of “A Haunting in Venice” is so strong that they more than do their part to elevate the film well beyond the limitations of the page, but if one were to take umbrage with any element of the work, it would be here.
2. The Cast
It’s almost expected that these films will have huge A-list casts full of big stars, but “Death on the Nile” reached a saturation point where it almost became self-parody. Graciously, much like many other elements in the film, “A Haunting in Venice” reels these indulgences in substantially and sculpts them into something stronger and more meaningful.
The result is a smaller cast, both in names and in size, but is all-around much stronger. Branagh and his entire cast of co-stars are sublime, but it is genuinely the one-two-punch of Jamie Dornan and Michelle Yeoh who walk away with the whole film. They both do deeply impressive work, stepping up to the plate when the story most calls for it and delivering insatiable, moving work. In one of the film’s biggest setpieces early on, Yeoh’s performance alone bolsters the horror to such a degree that it makes one clamor for more Michelle Yeoh-starring horror films.
1. The Visual Language
“A Haunting in Venice” has so many beautiful layers to its delectably cinematic appearance: the exquisite costume design (by Sammy Sheldon), the inspired production design (by John Paul Kelly), etc. But specifically, there’s a harmonic synchrony that occurs between the direction (by Branagh), the cinematography (by Haris Zambarloukos), and the editing (by Lucy Donaldson).
The visual language, as crafted on-set by Branagh and Zambarloukos, utilizes exceedingly wide frames with deep focus to an insanely effective degree, immediately conjuring up memories of Jack Clayton’s immaculate work in “The Innocents.” The editing by Donaldson only serves to bolster further and refine this wonderful work. In fact, Donaldson’s whip-smart editing lends tremendous resonance to the film’s most emotional scenes, serves as a crackling punctuation to the film’s horror, and even ingeniously ratchets up the tension releases of humor. The results are absolutely inspiring.
Overall, “A Haunting in Venice” is a delightfully atmospheric surprise. Rather than just another limp Christie adaptation with an added veneer of surface-level horror artifice, Branagh and co. have delivered a film that is rooted in the vernacular of the horror genre down to its very bones. As a direct result, “A Haunting in Venice” is such a deliriously good time at the cinema that its classically indebted craftsmanship eclipses any shortcomings the film has.