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