A HAUNTING IN VENICE – Review
Agatha Christie fans will delight in A HAUNTING IN VENICE, because Kenneth Branagh really hits the mark with this one.
Branagh has directed and starred a few of these Christie classic mysteries as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, featuring star casts and a big, splashy out-sized approach (including Branagh version of Poirot’s famous mustache). Those films have been based on very familiar Agatha Christie mysteries, the ones that have been done, on big screen and small, many times before over the years, which meant they invited comparison, sometimes unfavorable, to some stellar films and productions.
With A HAUNTING IN VENICE, Branagh takes a different tack. This Agatha Christie mystery film is based on a less-familiar Poirot mystery, Christie’s “Hallowe’en Party,” but it is re-set in an irresistible location, Venice, and the story is altered from the original in other ways, transforming it into a tale with elements of a supernatural ghost story. This time Branagh strikes gold. That extravagant mustache returns, and again there is a cast with some big name stars, but otherwise it feels like something completely fresh, a movie that is more immersive, unexpected and intriguing.
A HAUNTING IN VENICE leans into the mysterious atmosphere and haunting beauty of Venice, one of the world’s most storied cities. While all Agatha Christie mysteries are murder mysteries, this one is unusual in that it also has a ghost story side. Further, the story is set not during Venice’s Mardi Gras carnival season, with its masks and secrets, but at Halloween, with its masks and mischief, starting with a children’s costume party full or games and bobbling for apples, followed by a more serious seance attended by grown-ups.
Now-retired detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is living quietly in Venice when he is sought out by mystery author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) who wants the famous detective to help her de-bunk famed spiritualist medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) at a seance in a private home on Halloween.
The seance is to take place at a grand old mansion, a palazzo, and before the seance, the home will host a Halloween party for orphaned children. The legend is that the palazzo was once a Medieval orphanage but when the plague hit, the orphans’ caretakers abandoned their charges, and the ghosts of those abandoned children still haunt the house, seeking revenge.
But that legend is not why the spiritualist is being called to conduct a seance. The woman who owns the palazzo is a retired famous opera singer, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), and she is hoping to contact her dead daughter, a young woman who either jumped or fell to her death in the canal while in the grip of madness. Whether it was suicide, an accident or murder has remained unclear, but the distraught mother still mourns her lost child and seeks to hear her voice again.
Venice itself is almost a character in this tale, as is the still grand but eerie palazzo. Calling on this legendary atmosphere, Venice really shines in its dark, watery, and mysterious way. Branagh makes the most of the location, leaning into all things Venice, with art direction and moody half-lit photography.
Tina Fey’s author Ariadne Oliver’s arm-twisting compels Branagh’s Poirot to go to the palazzo’s Halloween party but whether he will even stay for the seance, much less expose the medium or solve any murder or murders, are details the film slowly reveals. Of course, as with any Christie tale, a diverse group turns up, invited or not, for the proceedings, and all of whom have some connection to the dead young woman, their own secrets, and perhaps motives for murder. Supporting characters include Olga Seminoff (French actress Camille Cottin, who was so excellent as Golda Meir’s assistant and confidant in GOLDA), a straight-laced servant with her own secrets, and Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan, who played the father in Branagh’s BELFAST), the family’s doctor who is haunted by his war experiences, along with his young son Leopold Ferrier (Jude Hill, the boy in BELFAST) a solemn and wise-beyond-his-years youngster who seems more the parent than his sad father.
Branagh has dialed back his Poirot in this performance, and added a level of doubt not usually seen in Poirot, which works very well here. Tina Fey’s author Ariadne Oliver clearly to represent Agatha Christie, referring to her novels as being based on the exploits of the famous detective, but nothing in Tina Fey’s performance makes you think of the British writer. The supporting parts are strong, with young Jude Hill and, of course, Michelle Yeoh, as memorable standouts.
Without the intense familiarity of the better-know Agatha Christie tales, the audience is allowed the pleasure of trying to figure out the various mysteries, and to better appreciate the writer’s skill in building suspense, and the script made other changes to the novel’s plot to keep us guessing.
The mystery is given a big boost by the Venetian setting and the watery house alone but beautiful, austere, moody photography enhances things too. The photography is perfect and lovely, just what you want for Venice and that the story largely takes place at night adds even more to the mood. All old Venetian houses have unused levels below water and an inherent mysterious atmosphere in them, particularly after the sun goes down. Branagh draws on all that delicious atmosphere with relish. Add in some candlelight, fine old furniture, vintage details and all those period costumes, and our imaginations to do the rest.
All this is catnip for Christie fans but if this kind of cleverly-plotted, period murder mystery is not to your taste, this one might not be for you. As for me, as a fan of Christie, suspense and Venice generally, it is very much my cup of tea (and there are cups of tea). Also note that while is a supernatural element, this is a crime thriller, not horror.
Kenneth Branagh hits the Agatha Christie target dead-on with A HAUNTING IN VENICE, and one hopes that will continue with the next one, as there likely will be another. But it will be hard to top something like this suspense yarn set in Venice at Halloween.
A HAUNTING IN VENICE opens in theaters on Friday, Sept. 15.
RATING: 3.5 out of 4 stars