Thursday, September 14, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

A perfectly palatable #ScaryMovieMonth appetizer.

There’s something beautiful about Kenneth Branagh’s commitment to capital-M Movies. In an (albeit fading) age of disposable IP, when most adult-oriented fare is banished to the streaming wilderness, the august thespian remains unwavering in his insistence on releasing brassy, melodramatic dinner theater to our mainstream multiplexes. That’s cause for celebration regardless of A Haunting in Venice’s overall quality, a comforting reminder that cinema still has a soul worth fighting for. Branagh is clearly overjoyed to lead this particular vanguard — His cameo as Niels Bohr in Oppenheimer earlier this summer was about as much ham and cheese as Christopher Nolan could reasonably allow in his staid tentpole blockbuster — and his third outing as Agatha Christie’s fussy master detective Hercule Poirot is the perfect vehicle with which to do so. Though not as star-studded or imperious as Branagh’s previous Christie adaptations, A Haunting in Venice is a perfectly satisfying prelude to what should be a spirited scary movie season.
Loosely-based on Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party, A Haunting in Venice meets up with Poirot (Branagh) in the midst of an uneasy retirement. Resisting the urge to take on new cases — perhaps still nursing the wounds from 2022’s Death on the Nile — Poirot passes the time in his garden, accompanied only by his former policeman bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) and the occasional delivery from the local chocolatier. That all changes when novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), whose thinly-veiled Poirot analog made them both household names, enlists the detective on a journey into the supernatural. It seems that renowned opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) will be holding a séance in her supposedly-haunted palazzo this Halloween evening, an earnest — but, according to the skeptical Poirot, misguided — attempt to learn the truth about the death of her daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson). Leading the ritual is the mysterious Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who claims the ability to commune with the dead.

Poirot quickly — and smugly — exposes Mrs. Reynolds as a fraud, of course, but when she turns up brutally murdered herself, it becomes clear that a real and deadly game is, in fact, afoot. As a torrential downpour makes escape impossible, Poirot locks the doors and begins his inquiries with the cunning Oliver as his eager assistant. The suspects include Rowena, the family doctor (Jamie Dornan), his son (Belfast’s Jude Hill), the housekeeper (Camille Cottin), Alicia’s former fiancé (Kyle Allen), and a pair of thieves in Mrs. Reynolds’ employ (Emma Laird and Ali Khan). What follows is all the backstabbing chamber dramatics we’ve come to expect from ensemble mysteries like these, with accusations and recriminations flying wild as Poirot gets closer and closer to the truth. Though he remains unmoved by the supernatural implications of the deaths around him, the detective soon finds himself tormented by lilting lullabies, leaking walls, and phantom figures that appear to him and — much to the skeptic’s dismay — him alone.
Noticeably more somber and understated than Nile and 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express before it, A Haunting in Venice is nevertheless a well-composed and often energetic entry in what we must now refer to as the Poirot Cinematic Universe. Branagh gives his cast ample room to play, with Yeoh firing off a few monologues to make up for her limited screen time and Fey taking her best shot at a wise-cracking ‘40s dame. It’s Hill who probably acquits himself best, though, playing a haunted youngster who waits in the wings, Edgar Allan Poe volume in hand, as the drama around him unfolds.

For Branagh’s part, the famously ostentatious performer is a bit subdued this time around — Poirot’s trademark double-decker mustache is the loudest thing about him — nobly deferring to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ canted angles, off-center framing, and aggressive fish-eye photography to heighten the claustrophobic intrigue. Branagh is still making capital-C Choices, but at least he’s doing it for the greater good.
And that’s all we’re doing here, folks: Serving the greater cinematic good. Branagh’s work may not be as innovative as some of his contemporaries, but he hasn’t ever seemed all that interested in breaking the mold. He’s one of our great formalists, after all; he loves the mold. The mold is important to him. As a result, A Haunting in Venice fits comfortably within the confines of the genre and avoids the postmodern slyness of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out mysteries or the bitter acerbity of Mark Mylod’s The Menu. That’ll make it feel a little stale for some viewers, and it’s hardly scary enough to draw any but the most ardent horror fans, but just because something is simple doesn’t make it easy. Branagh is still demonstrating growth, foregoing many of his most self-serving habits in pursuit of a lean, 108-minute slice of gothic fun. His Poirot is pleasant in small doses, exactly the agreeable sort of protagonist fit to lead a series such as this. As long as Branagh manages expectations, there’s no reason he shouldn’t make one of these every year.

A Haunting In Venice hits theaters Friday, September 15th.

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