3.5 out of 5 stars

Agatha Christie purists may squirm, but A Haunting in Venice, director Kenneth Branagh’s third riff on the work of mystery fiction’s eternal queen and her most celebrated creation, the fiercely eccentric Hercule Poirot, is an opulent and stylish bit of fun.

A Haunting in Venice almost entirely dispenses with its source material, 1969’s Hallowe’en Party, a lesser-known Christie novel published late in her career. Instead, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green use the book as a spring board for a fast-paced, ultra-stylish mystery streaked with the supernatural.

They ingeniously transport the novel’s dowdy English setting to the ghostly opulence of Venice, a city frozen in its haunted past as it sinks into the Venetian mud. The year is 1947, shortly after the end of World War II. Hercule Poirot (Branagh) now lives a dream-haunted exile in that dream-haunted city, embittered and weary of sleuthing. Potential clients camp outside his ornate palazzo, as needy as Taylor Swift fans waiting for the box office to open, but he slams the door on them all.

Poirot prefers to fuss over his orchids, but his occasional “Watson” (and stand-in for author Christie) Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) manages to break through the gates to pull him out of retirement and get him back in the game with a scheme to expose a famous medium named Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) as a fraud.

Oliver’s snagged them both an invitation to a Hallowe’en party featuring Reynolds conducting a séance, with the event being thrown in the gorgeously run-down palazzo of opera diva Rowena Drake (Kelly Riley) to commemorate the first anniversary of the night her daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), apparently committed suicide by jumping into the Venice Canal. 

Mired in grief, Rowena’s hired Reynolds to contact her daughter’s departed spirit. Also attending, along with Poirot and Oliver, are Reynolds’ Romani assistants, Desdemona (Emma Laird) and Nicholas (Ali Khan); Rowena’s housemaid, Olga (Camille Cottin); and retired police officer Vitali (Riccardo Scamarcio).

Others on the guest list have intimate links to Alicia’s troubled life: Alicia’s caddish ex-fiancé Maxime (Kyle Allen) and her private physician, Dr Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), a shell-shocked war veteran who’s accompanied by his eerily precocious 10-year-old son, Leopold (Jude Hill)—who, in-between reading Edgar Allen Poe and pronouncing on ghosts and horrors, plays supportive dad to his own dad.

Poirot cleverly exposes Reynolds’ fakery (with a typewriter doing the work of a Ouija board to fine effect). But suddenly Alicia’s ghostly voice emerges from Reynolds’ mouth. As Reynolds spins like a dervish, her accusing finger drawing a circle encompassing everyone, Alicia’s spirit declares herself a murder victim, not a suicide. And her murderer is among them right now! Who that is, Reynolds never gets the chance to reveal because, moments later, she meets a perfectly gruesome and cleverly shot demise.

By now the storm outside has swept over the palazzo, trapping everyone inside, turning the film into a haunted house story. With suspects lurking in every shadow—more than usual for this genre—Poirot works a long night as he winds his rational way through each suspect as more corpses appear and the circle of suspicion widens, even hinting at Poirot himself. He pushes against supernatural explanations, but the supernatural pushes back in its unsettling way, until at last, dawn arrives with the murderous plot revealed with a rare and pleasing ingenuity.

Venice is the most haunted of haunted cities, as proved by a wide range of artistic works from Thomas Mann’s novel, Death in Venice, to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1972). A Haunting in Venice is profoundly less serious—it’s quite silly in fact—but the city plays its part with Italian Gothic fervor. Director Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambourlukis open up the city like a Gothic toy box brimming with dark marvels: a magic lantern show… a long shot of Reynolds, draped in black cape and white mask silently arriving on a lamplit gondola like a ghostly demon as fireworks burst over Venice’s great ramparts… and a pile of stuffed toy rabbits in a hidden basement, evidence of an old and terrible crime. The exterior shots were all shot in Venice while the terracotta interior of the palazzo (apparently recreated at Pinewood Studios) is a riot of colour and shadow, high empty ceilings, and gloomy passageways. 

Editor Lucy Donaldson knits a swift and eye-pleasing stream of images, loaded with disorienting camera angles that keep us off balance without confusing us. Branagh’s direction is as skewed as Orson Welles’ in Citizen Kane (1941), though this movie has none of Kane’s epic ambitions. Occasionally, things get carried away with, like a traveling shot of Poirot in close-up on a rolling platform to dramatise his frenzy as he frantically tears about the darkened hallways in search of the truth.

However, the film’s fever is suited to the material. Branagh’s not looking for Citizen Kane comparisons; he just wants us to have a good time and he mostly succeeds, even if plot details and dialogue get lost in the rush. A good mystery requires close attention and this one takes a little more.

As for the performances, the cast mostly delivers: Michelle Yeoh as Reynolds takes top honours, along with Jamie Dornan as the troubled doctor, Jude Hill as his extremely self-possessed son, and Kyle Hill as Maxime, the scoundrel whose hard heart conceals a touching regret. 

The rest of the cast does well too, except for the serious miscasting of comedian Tina Fey as Ariadne Oliver. Fey is an appealing performer, but as Oliver she misses the mark entirely and seems to know it. Fey lacks Oliver’s haughty self-absorption and fails to find any wit or depth in her dialogue. How she landed this role is one mystery that would melt even Poirot’s little grey cells! Although Branagh does have a tendency to cast comedians in his films.

As Poirot, Branagh doesn’t quite nail it either, despite his best effort. He is, of course, one of Britain’s finest actors, but he fails to fit into Poirot’s shiny patent leathers, as Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov once did. He’s not even close to the diamond standard set by David Suchet during his 24-year tenure as Poirot on television. Branagh is superb at playing worldly men but seems unable to sand and polish his rough surfaces to match Poirot’s unworldly, almost ethereal, bourgeois elegance and infuriating comic neatness.

Whether fretting over table settings or at the market measuring eggs with a tape measure, Branagh always fails to convince as Poirot. But no matter: if he can keep the imagination and energy flowing for his next Poirot movie, we can even forgive that crazy moth-like mustache.

USA UK ITALY | 2023 | 103 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider - 20th century studios

Cast & Crew

director: Kenneth Branagh.
writer: Michael Green (based on the book ‘Hallowe’en Party’ by Agatha Christie.
starring: Kenneth Branagh, Kyle Allen, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Kelly Reilly, Riccardo Scamarcio & Michelle Yeoh.