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A Haunting in Venice (A Movie Review)

Updated: Sep 18, 2023


Starring Kyle Allen, Kenneth Branagh, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Kelly Reilly, Riccardo Scamarcio, Michelle Yeoh, Lorenzo Acquaviva, Dylan Corbett-Bader, Clara Duczmal, Amir El-Masry, Stella Harris, Vanessa Ifediora, David Menkin, Yaw Nimako-Asamoah, Fernando Piloni, Rowan Robinson and Emilio Villa-Muhammad.

Screenplay by Michael Green.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Distributed by 20th Century Studios. 103 minutes. Rated PG.

A Haunting in Venice is the third time in which Kenneth Branagh directed a version of an Agatha Christie mystery novel and portrayed her legendary Belgian sleuth, the brilliant-but-eccentric Hercule Poirot.

Of course taking on Christie’s body of work could be a long career path. The prolific writer penned about 70 mystery novels – with over 30 of them featuring Poirot – so there is a whole lot of material to take on. The first two Branagh made were slightly unadventurous – two of the better-known Poirot adventures, Murder on the Orient Express and Death in the Nile, both of which have been filmed multiple times. In fact, the last big cinematic Poirot series in the 1970s also did those two novels, in that same order. (The third film of that earlier series was Evil Under the Sun.) Both of those books were also remade for the popular BBC series Poirot.

So it’s kind of a nice surprise that this one is based on one of the lesser-known of Christie’s novels – the 1969 book Hallowe’en Party. In fact the title was so obscure that Branagh felt comfortable totally renaming the story – intellectual property be damned. Actually, in full disclosure, it’s been decades since I’ve read Hallowe’en Party and I have almost no memory of the story, but from a conversation at the screening with someone who remembered the book, this film is very different from the novel.

What do you know? A Haunting in Venice may be the best of the Branagh adaptations of Christie’s work so far. This is because Branagh has mixed a certain number of horrific moments in with the classic drawing room mystery tableau, and it turns out to be a terrific fit.

A Haunting in Venice is not a horror film, per se, but it has enough jump scares, gloomy atmospherics and mysterious things that go bump in the night that it juices the more staid, traditional mystery aspects of the story.

The movie starts with Poirot living in Venice, Italy, having retired from detecting. He even has a bodyguard to fight off the many people constantly bugging him to take on their cases. He is finally prodded out of his cocoon of inactivity by an old American friend who visits – Ariadne Oliver (played by Tina Fey) another character who often appeared in Christie’s fiction, in fact she as a female mystery novelist Ariadne is sort of a stand-in for Christie in her own fiction.

Ariadne is determined to get Poirot to return to his work. Specifically, she invites him to join her at a Halloween party at a local haunted castle, which is owned by a famous opera singer (Kelly Reilly). After the party, there will be a séance trying to connect with the singer’s daughter, who mysteriously seemed to kill herself not long before. A famous medium (Michelle Yeoh) is running the séance, and Ariadne is certain that she is a charlatan, so she asks Poirot to see if he can prove her to be a fake.

Soon the group is in the middle of a haunting, with sounds going bump in the night, odd apparitions showing up in the darkness of the dank abode and bodies starting to pile up. There is only a limited number of potential suspects locked in the mansion, and Poirot must find the killer before he (or she) strikes again.

The mystery itself is old-fashioned and twisty, but the haunting aspects make the story even more intriguing. It’s a smart and simple way of making the slightly creaky story beats resonate more strongly.

And the footage of ancient Venice, even the huge, haunted hall they visit, is simply stunningly beautiful.

All in all, A Haunting in Venice is a smart and fun take on a sometimes-dated filmmaking style. Good for them. Over a century after Agatha Christie’s first novel was published, there’s still life in these old books.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: September 15, 2023.

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