Actor-producer-director Kenneth Branagh had already adapted two of Agatha Christie’s most popular Hercule Poirot novels, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and ‘Death on the Nile.’ He could have easily gone for other notable ones like ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ or ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.’
Instead, he settled for one of Christie’s lesser-known works – the 1969 novel ‘Hallowe’en Party’ but re-titled it as ‘A Haunting in Venice’. One should know, particularly the purists and fans of the novel, that Branagh and returning screenwriter Michael Green took a lot of creative liberties here, namely altering Christie’s original story and the characters. The setting is even different, transplanting from the novel’s English village of Woodleigh Common to the movie’s Venice location.
The story occurs in post-WWII Venice as Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is now enjoying his self-imposed retirement. His glory days of solving mystery cases are over, even though there are still people out there seeking his professional help. He would rather spend his days tending his garden and have delicious pastries.
Then along came Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a best-selling author and an old friend of Poirot. She wants to invite him to a Halloween party and, later, a séance organized by opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) in her palazzo. Poirot reluctantly agrees, and when the night comes, he simply goes through the motions until the arrival of a famous medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). She would lead the séance to communicate with the spirit of Rowena’s late daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson).
Ariadne has been looking for inspiration to write her next novel, and the reason she invited Poirot to a séance in the first place would allow him to uncover whether the medium is exactly who she is or simply a fraud. Poirot doesn’t believe in ghosts or anything related to the supernatural. He has seen enough real-life horror during the time of the war that he’s already become disillusioned with the world.
When one of them ends up murdered on the night of the séance, it’s up to Poirot to find out the killer among them while discovering the truth behind the haunted palazzo.
‘A Haunting in Venice’ runs a significantly shorter duration this time around, clocking at 103 minutes compared to the previous two movies. The good news is it doesn’t feel as protracted as the lengthy ‘Death on the Nile.’ It isn’t fast-paced either, as Branagh tends to slow things down, which can be seen in the leisurely first act and some scenes later in the movie.
But at least it was watchable and helped the movie be blessed with John Paul Kelly’s sumptuous production design and Haris Zambarloukos’s moody cinematography. The latter successfully captured the movie’s ominous and brooding tone of the supernatural-tinged story set in the derelict palazzo.
Speaking of palazzo, John Paul Kelly does a good job with the exterior and especially the interior of the setting, which is reportedly shot in Pinewood Studios. It has the look and feel of an old-school haunted-house horror film, complete with dim lighting and Branagh’s dynamic camerawork.
The latter, in turn, helps to make the movie less rigid in its staging since it takes place mostly in a single location. Beyond the palazzo setting, I’m glad the movie is devoid of the hokey CGI and obvious green screens that beset the previous two movies, thanks to some of the gorgeous on-location shoots in Venice and Italy.
The movie’s supernatural-horror elements are undoubtedly a nice touch, but it wasn’t without its flaws. Branagh’s overreliance on jump scares is predictable, even though he immersed me in his macabre visuals. The murder-mystery angle is reasonably thrilling as Poirot puts every piece of the clues together. The only exception in this area is the eventual revelation of the killer, which I personally find is neither shocking nor surprising.
Perhaps after the high benchmark set upon ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (there’s a reason why the novel itself was such an enduring success even today), it’s hard to shake off the feeling for not comparing such a crafty whodunit with the rest of Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot movie saga released so far.
‘A Haunting in Venice’ also lacks star power, unlike the ones seen in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and ‘Death on the Nile.’ But that doesn’t mean the movie suffers from poor casting choices. In fact, Branagh still deserves a mention for assembling a good ensemble cast after all. Reprising his Hercule Poirot role for the third time in a row, Branagh is fun to watch, no matter when he’s having the time of his life or getting down to business investigating the murder. Tina Fey delivers solid support as Ariadne Oliver, and the same also goes for Michelle Yeoh as the medium, Joyce Reynolds.