Review: A Haunting in Venice


“It was a dark and stormy night …”

Well, it didn’t start out that way. In this, Kenneth Branagh’s third outing into the world of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot following “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile” – we meet a very different Hercule Poirot in a very different setting.

When we first see him, he is in retirement in Venice, Italy. He has a bodyguard (Ricardo Scamarcio – “John Wick: Chapter 2”) who protects his privacy from the many people who would seek his help in solving their mysteries. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an old friend, mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (a miscast Tina Fey who acts more like her character in “Only Murders in the Building”) shows up to berate him for retiring and wasting his talents. She invites him to accompany her to a Halloween party for Venetian orphans, to be held at a “haunted” palacio that evening. The real attraction however, is a séance for adults that will follow.

By the time the party starts, it is dark and storm clouds hang heavy. We are introduced to the main characters – a standard for Christie mysteries – as the children frolic through the dark, ornate, but crumbling mansion. This is a point at which this adaptation differs from so many of the other films based on Dame Christie’s works. The air is heavy with foreboding, the surrounds are vast, yet claustrophobically murky, and everyone is miserable. That is, with the exception of Ariadne, who is all business and irritatingly perky.

A masked figure arrives as the party continues. It is Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh – “Crazy Rich Asians”) a notorious medium brought to contact the dead daughter of palacio owner Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly – “Flight”).

Not only are the surroundings far more somber and threatening than in Branagh’s earlier Christie outings, his Poirot is different as well: older, sadder, much more introspective. This adds impressively to the atmosphere of brooding menace in the supposedly haunted house – a house in which an unknown murderer is trapped with many potential victims during a vicious rainstorm.

The camera work is impressive, but there are too many cheap shocks – so easy to accomplish when much of what we are supposed to see in the frame is obscured by the murk of low light oil lamps.

There are deaths, of course, and Poirot, at the very moment when all seems to be scheming against him – physically, psychologically and spiritually – almost literally pulls the solution out of his moustache before the usual assembled throng.

There have been several actors who’ve portrayed Poirot in film over the years. Principal among these have been Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, David Suchet (TV) and now Branagh. They each brought something to the role, with Branagh in this latest entry, being the most human. But is that really what we want in our Poirot? Truest to the concept of this consummate detective is probably Suchet’s interpretation. And perhaps the best blend of the analytic mind with the human touch is that of Peter Ustinov in “Death on the Nile.”

Why not sample them all and decide for yourself?

Runtime: One hour, 43 minutes
Availability: In theaters

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