Kenneth Branagh’s dedication to turning Agatha Christie stories into all-star murder mystery movies has yielded mixed results. Murder on the Orient Express was mostly good, although it got bogged down in special effects at the end. Death on the Nile was too slow, took too long to get to the murder, and was obviously filmed in front of a green screen. The latest, A Haunting in Venice, is easily the best of the bunch. Seemingly learning from any mistakes made on the first two, Branagh turns in a tightly paced work that smartly favors thematic depth over CGI.
Detective Hercule Poirot (played again by Branagh) is retired, having lost his interest in pursuing cases. He receives a visit from old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), the mystery author who made him infamous. She tells him of a psychic medium she witnessed in action. Although she didn’t previously believe in such things, Ariadne cannot deduce how the woman performed seemingly impossible feats. “I’m the smartest person I know, and I can't figure it out,” she says, “so I thought I’d ask the second smartest person I know.”
Poirot reluctantly agrees to check out the situation. On Halloween night, there’s a gathering at the palatial estate of opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). The medium, Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), will attempt to communicate with the spirit of Rowena’s daughter Alicia, who committed suicide in the home, possibly having been driven mad by the ghosts of tortured children said to inhabit the place. Also present are the family’s doctor (Jamie Dornan) and his son (Jude Hill), the housekeeper (Camile Cottin), Mrs. Reynolds’ assistants (Emma Laird and Ali Khan), and Alicia’s gold-digging former fiancée (Kyle Allen). When a murder occurs after the séance, Poirot must determine whodunit and why.
A Haunting in Venice operates on two levels simultaneously. On one, it’s a standard murder mystery with clues that must be followed. The movie is very enjoyable on this level, especially when we get to the requisite scene where Poirot gathers all the suspects into the same room, then outlines his theory of what happened. Thanks to Michael Green’s screenplay, the pieces fit together nicely, leading to a revelation that is both logical and satisfying. For the record – and to my great pleasure – I guessed the wrong person as the murderer.
The other level is a bit heavier. Poirot makes it quite clear that he does not believe in God, spirits, or ghosts. Over the course of his investigation, he begins seeing images that he cannot explain. That, in turn, leads him to wonder if stories about the home being haunted could possibly be true. Branagh conveys a sense of disturbance within his character, as the master sleuth faces the possibility that he could be wrong for once. The unfamiliar nature of that feeling rattles him. This aspect infuses the story with a little weight. It isn’t just about finding the killer, it’s about what it means to believe that which cannot be conclusively proven.
Visually, A Haunting in Venice is wonderfully moody. Using atmospheric lighting, askew camera angles, and lenses that slightly distort the image in some shots, the film is drenched in eerie ambiance. Vibrant performances from the actors add to the fun. A couple of supporting characters, specifically Mrs. Reynolds’ helpers, needed more development, but on the whole, Branagh has done right by Agatha Christie this time.
out of four
A Haunting in Venice is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing images, and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.