A HAUNTING IN VENICE Review: Branagh Delivers Triumphant Third Poirot Adaptation

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
A HAUNTING IN VENICE Review: Branagh Delivers Triumphant Third Poirot Adaptation

Over the last decade, actor, screenwriter, and director Kenneth Branagh (Belfast, Hamlet, Henry V) has shifted his attention from kickstarting one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most popular superheroes, Thor, to attempting to reboot the late Tom Clancy’s most famous character, Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst turned unlikely action hero, and giving an oft-adapted, public domain fairy tale, Cinderella, a newish, big-screen spin.

Only one out of the three, Thor (2011), can be described as an unqualified commercial and/or critical success and even there, it’s less what Branagh, working from a middling script and studio-imposed budget limitations was able to accomplish than what the character, aka the Norse God of Thunder, ultimately achieved in subsequent, Branagh-free entries and the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself.

After leaving superheroes, action heroes, and fairy tale princesses behind, Branagh shifted focus to bringing Agatha Christie’s singular creation, Hercule Poirot, the brilliant, Belgian-born, London-residing private detective, to the big screen, where Poirot and his outrageously outsized mustache have been absent for far too long. Choosing to adapt Christie’s best known novel, Murder on the Orient Express, first, Branagh scored not just a must-needed hit for his flagging directorial career, but reawakened interest in Christie’s back catalog outside of England where she’s remained one of the most popular native-born writers.

Branagh also took a page from old-school, Hollywood murder-mysteries, amassing a stellar top-to-bottom cast, high-end production design, and positively gorgeous cinematography to deliver a wholly satisfying cinematic experience. And with Branagh as the fastidious, flamboyant, not to mention slightly smug, self-satisfied, and egotistical Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express turned into an all-around win for everyone on both sides of the digital screen.

Less so, alas, for the several times-delayed sequel, Death on the Nile. Hampered by a miscast Gal Gadot, career-scuttling controversy around Arnie Hammer’s personal life, and some of the ugliest, most obvious green screens in history, the once-anticipated sequel disappointed on almost every level.

When Branagh announced a third go-around as Poirot, questions, doubts, and even one or two reservations surfaced. Smartly, however, Branagh chose to dig deep into Christie’s vast Poirot-related oeuvre (33 novels, more than 50 short stories, and two plays) and selected a lesser known, late-career novel, Hallowe’en Party, for Poirot’s next big-screen adventure.

Once again relying on screenwriting collaborator Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049), Branagh hasn’t just adapted one of Christie’s last novels. He’s virtually transformed it from a relatively straightforward locked-room mystery-thriller to a supernatural horror one, filling shots, scenes, and sequences with all manner of Baroque, Gothic influences, all ultimately contributing to an utterly delightful piece of populist entertainment. Note: That’s not meant as a knock at all, but as a compliment.

In a stroke of minor genius, Branagh and Green strip the Belgian detective of his usual self-confidence, situating him closer to the end of his life or career rather than the beginning. In fact, the Poirot we initially meet in A Haunting in Venice has retired, living off his savings and police pension in Venice, meditatively tending to his carefully curated garden, receiving food and pastries on the regular from one of the many boats that criss-cross the Venetian canals, and otherwise enjoying a stress-free life. His notoriety, however, means that he’s forced to employ a personal guard, Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio), to keep obnoxiously persistent, wannabe clients away from his front door.

It’s not until a self-described friend, Ariadne Oliver (Tiny Fey), a successful crime novelist like her creator, Agatha Christie, appears at his doorstep bearing the first of many apples (real, imaginary, and symbolic) that Poirot grudgingly agrees to put his “little gray cells” back into use. Oliver wants Poirot’s help in unmasking a medium, Joyce Reynolds (Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh), as a fraud at a Halloween party thrown by Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), a world-famous opera singer, at her Venetian palazzo. Reynolds claims she can talk to the dead, specifically Rowena’s dearly departed daughter, Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson), the victim of a drowning a year earlier.

Along with Vitale and Ariadne, Poirot arrives just as a raucous Halloween party for local orphans comes to a conclusion. Once the visitors have departed, the palazzo’s labyrinthine enormity becomes even more apparent. There’s a séance to hold, of course.

As Reynolds slips into a deep trance and her voice perceptibly changes, Poirot watches for telltale signs of fraud involving Reynolds or her refugee assistants, Desdemona (Emma Laird) and Nicholas Holland (Ali Khan) or guilt-betraying reactions from the other guests gathered at the palazzo, Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), the younger Drake’s onetime caretaker, Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Alicia’s ex-fiancé, the family doctor, Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), and his Gothic horror-loving son, Leopold (Jude Hill, Belfast).

Eventually, whereever the Belgian detective goes, murder surely follows. One of Rowena's guests turns up dead by unnatural causes, leading to a newly unretired Poirot to pull out his notepad and pencil from his suit jacket and start interviewing the still living guests to uncover clues about the murder and quite possibly, Alicia’s suspicious drowning a year earlier.

Oliver offers to help, acting as Poirot’s assistant and factotum. Poirot, however, isn’t quite all there. Uncharacteristically, he’s filled with self-doubt about his mental acuity and his rusty detective skills. Even worse for Poirot, he starts to see and hear things no one else sees and hears, suggesting he’s not – like every other instance or iteration of Poirot on film, television, or in Christie’s novels and short stories – the right person for the seemingly impossible task.

Along with making Poirot more vulnerable and therefore, more relatable, Branagh leans heavily into the Euro-Gothic setting of the decaying palazzo and a rain-soaked, water-logged Venice. Leaving the green screens of Death on the Nile in the rearview, Branagh relies on clever production design, turning the vast empty halls of the palazzo into a decrepit monument to vanity and, by extension, frailty.

Supposedly cursed and haunted by orphan children left to die on its grounds during a centuries-old plague, the palazzo is over-stuffed with ghosts both literal and metaphorical, making it the perfect location for death by unnatural causes, spine-chilling, spirit-raising seances, and the unearthing of twisted, unhealthy desires.

Besides switching up locations (Venice for Christie’s favored England), liberally swapping out characters, names, and story elements, Branagh and Green set A Haunting in Venice in 1947, just two years after the end of World War II. From Death on the Nile’s prologue, an addition some of Christie’s diehard fans disliked intensely, we learned that Poirot not only served in World War I (aka, the Great War), but also suffered facial scarification necessitating the growth of his mustache (yes, even his mustache received its own, standalone origin story).

That likely meant Poirot didn’t actively serve in the Second World War. Like so many others, however, living through another destructive war meant being traumatized by that war.

A similar fate apparently impacted Leterrier, a British physician who served in a field hospital during World War II. Where, however, Poirot more or less reconciled himself to his wartime experiences, Leterrier didn’t – or at least hasn’t yet, given the proximity time-wise. Their wartime experiences connect them in a way none of the other characters at the palazzo are. Individually and collectively, Poirot and Leterrier’s experiences, their worldviews, and their attitudes, add a level of emotional resonance to A Haunting in Venice otherwise missing from Branagh’s earlier Poirot-related efforts.

That, in turn, results in unexpectedly layered, nuanced storytelling. Add to that Branagh’s penchant for showmanship (Branagh has never met a Dutch angle he didn’t love), texture-rich, tactile production design, and a cast working at their heights of their powers, and the result proves not only that Branagh was right to give Poirot a third go-around or adapting a lesser known Christie novel, but that Branagh-as-Poirot shouldn’t stop at at a loose trilogy, but go on for another trilogy or two. 

A Haunting in Venice opens Friday, September 15, 2023, only in movie theaters.

A Haunting in Venice

  • Kenneth Branagh
  • Michael Green
  • Agatha Christie
  • Jamie Dornan
  • Kelly Reilly
  • Kenneth Branagh
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A Haunting in VeniceAgatha ChristieAli KhanEmma LairdJamie DornanJude HillKelly ReillyKenneth BranaghKyle AllenMichelle YeohMichael GreenCrimeDramaHorror

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