Kenneth Branagh in A Haunting in Venice

Film Review: A Haunting in Venice

Film Reviews

A Haunting in Venice
Director: Kenneth Branagh

TSG Entertainment and Scott Free Productions
In Theaters: 09.15

While I’m not a big fan of most modern horror, I thoroughly enjoy a spooky Halloween flick during the fall season. A Haunting in Venice is a little more than a bit of indulgent fun to get us in the mood for the holiday, and it’s absolutely nothing less.

A Haunting in Venice takes place just after the end of World War II, on the night of All Hallows’ Eve, and Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, Oppenheimer, Dunkirk) has retired from his illustrious career and settled in Venice where the ardent atheist finds himself reluctantly attending a séance at a decaying palazzo with a supernatural reputation. When one of the guests is murdered, Poirot quickly goes back to work, locking down the house and coming to identify the killer. Not everyone is convinced that the murder was committed by one of the guests, however, and Poirot must face the possibility that there maybe be something supernatural at work.

A Haunting in Venice is Branagh’s third time both directing and staring in a film about Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth Poirot, and thankfully it’s also the best. Where Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile shouldered the baggage of desperately trying to bring something fresh to tales that had been brought to the screen multiple times, this adaptation of the lesser-known Hallowe’en Party by Christie has a fresh energy that comes with being able to do its own thing and do it well. Branagh, renowned Shakespearean director, is clearly enjoying the chance to teach his skeptical protagonist that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy, revisiting the genre that he left his mark on with Dead Again back in 1991. Branagh employs many of the same techniques, including an abundance of tilted Dutch angles and the occasional black-and-white sequence, and this deliberate throwback benefits greatly from embracing its own campiness and never taking itself too seriously. Perhaps best of all, Branagh didn’t cast anyone who was in The Lone Ranger this time around, as the presence of Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, all too accurately cast as men of low character, made the other two films more than a bit uncomfortable.

Branagh as an actor is in top form, and the character fits him like a glove compared to the other two films. As we watch the famed Belgian waffle on his conviction that there is nothing after death, he’s surrounded by a cast of characters who are larger than life. The party guests include Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once) as Joyce Reynolds, the medium conducting the séance, Kelly Reilly (Yellowstone) as Rowena Drake, the owner of the house and Tina Fey (30 Rock) as Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer who has made a career out of writing novels based around a thinly disguised version of Poirot. I must confess that every time Fey was on screen talking about solving a juicy mystery, I struggled to separate this character from the one she plays so hilariously on Only Murders in the Building. Still, all three of these talented women add presence and showmanship to the film, as does Camille Cottin (Stillwater) as Olga, Rowena Drake’s trusted servant. It was the reteaming of Belfast’s Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, once again playing father and son, that I found to be the most memorable. As a longtime Branagh fan, I found watching his shared one-on-one scenes with Hill, who played his own alter ego in Belfast, to be both a trick and a treat, as Poriot’s obvious admiration for Leoplod, the precocious young prodigy who cares for his battle-scarred father, makes for the film’s best character dynamic. 

A Haunting in Venice won’t be showing up on top-10-best lists, and it’s nothing particularly new, though the latter is hardly a strike against it. The old-fashioned Saturday matinee tone of the film is a major part of its appeal, and as a comfort food movie, it promises to be one of the most welcome  diversions in theaters. Let’s hope that it performs well enough to still be around by Halloween, though I highly recommend rushing out to see it in a darkened IMAX theater with someone you love and distrust just enough that you still feel a bit jumpy. –Patrick Gibbs

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