An interesting trend in Hollywood has developed in recent years, namely that of the murder-mystery, or rather smartly, the whodunit genre that coated cinemas in the 1960s and 1970s. Something otherworldly exists within these types of films, and no better author in the genre exists than Dame Agatha Christie. A Miss Marple-driven story would be nice, but today, cinema has graced us with a renaissance of sorts in the form of Hercule Poirot and in the hands of Kenneth Branagh, A Haunting in Venice, who directs and stars in the third film in his series, the world is a better place.
Based on the 1969 novel Halloween Party and serving as a direct sequel to 2022’s Death on the Nile, Branagh assembles a strong ensemble, a key to A Haunting in Venice’s success.
The time is 1947. Famous French detective Poirot (Branagh) has retired to Venice, Italy, where he is once again called upon for his investigative skills to solve a year-old murder at a seance he attends on the eve of Halloween.
The timing for A Haunting in Venice couldn’t possibly be better. Audiences seem to have resonated with the 2017 remake of A Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. From a story perspective, Michael Green’s script for A Haunting in Venice is the trilogy’s most potent. By now, we’re familiar with Branagh’s Poirot. The timing of this particular story is not perfected out of the 2023 seasonal rash of horror or scare films; it is the combination of the environment Branagh creates with the murder-mystery elements that make A Haunting in Venice crave-able.
That Poirot himself is not the lead detective on the case adds a nuanced layer to the film. The famous detective is retired and is as much a guest in these proceedings as we are. Instead, Branagh masterfully relies on the character’s muscle memory.
Despite his reluctance to be involved in the mystery, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) is on the case and needs Poirot’s help when she struggles to fit the puzzle pieces together. Fey is rich in her dramatics, sly in her words, and makes for an effective detective in Christie’s world and is an effective onscreen compatriot for Poirot and Branagh. Neither actor tries to upstage the other. Neither displays one’s observations over the other until the Christie staple, recalling the events that lead to the solution, comes to bear.
Jamie Dornan plays Dr. Leslie Ferrier, a giving man with grief from his past, who is a struggling father. His son, Leopoldo Ferrier, played by Jude Hill (Belfast), is caring while tending to his father’s needs. His performance, as in Belfast, should be observed carefully. Riccardo Scamarcio (John Wick) is Vitale Portfoglio, an off-duty police officer officially trying to solve the case but isn’t entirely hapless. Scamarcio is a strong presence, and despite not having more clues to go off of, the actor’s resolve and strength of character shine.
Michelle Yeoh as Joyce Reynolds was by far the most interesting of all the characters populating, partly for her performance. The actress continually inhabits her roles with craft and grace; any film is elevated through her presence. It is here, as a medium, that the actress shines. Even if she is not on screen, Joyce’s presence is felt throughout the story; Yeoh transcends Joyce’s physical being throughout the film’s run time.
Set in a moody palazzo, which was once an orphanage, Venice is an exciting setting within its darkened waterways, its stone structures floating on the canals; its obscured weather, often sunny during the day; its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea draws in layers of fog as the temperature cools following a sun-drenched and warm day. Tongue firmly in cheek, Venice is the perfect setting for this haunting.
Branagh takes advantage of his core cast; each has a distinct part to play. Unlike A Murder on the Orient Express or especially Death on the Nile, A Haunting in Venice makes far less use of CGI than its predecessors. Branagh uses practical lighting to create a moody atmosphere, which certainly pays off in the end.
That Poirot plays second fiddle to Fey’s Ariadne also helps the story. Poirot is a naturally smug character, always observing, always musing. A Haunting in Venice allows us to see Poirot’s gifts serving in concert with other observations, not immediately leading the proceedings. The visual flare within the story, the camera work, and the music all play to these aspects of the story, and yet, when the case is solved, we feel we can let Poirot go back to enjoying his retirement; we’re not necessarily reliant on the character to solve yet another case, nor is it a challenge to accept that he is a guest, rather than a leader, something that will challenge Rian Johnson as he concocts his third Benoit Blanc story in the Knives Out trilogy.
Somehow, we’ll always have the whodunit. We have Kenneth Branagh carrying Agatha Christie’s torch into modern times. That A Haunting in Venice can exist as part of a trilogy of good stories, that Poirot can thrive with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Story and outclass The Menu or, especially, See How They Run, the world is better for having Poirot, Christie, and Branagh in it.