‘A Haunting in Venice’ Review: Branagh and an All-Star Cast in a Glossy Whodunit

What does it say that in an era of superhero and sci-fi sequels, audiences will still rush out to cinemas to see an old-fashioned murder mystery? 

Granted, the Hercule Poirot series helmed by Kenneth Branagh does adhere to the “Hollywood only makes sequels” cliche and has its basis in existing intellectual property—a series of stories by Agatha Christie. Still, we take comfort in knowing that a movie without explosions, spaceships, or spandex can find an audience.

It helps, of course, that Branagh knows how to dress up Christie’s dusty tales with enough pageantry and interesting casting to make the story seem fresh. Christie’s mysteries have provided fodder for countless adaptations on film and television for almost 100 years. Perhaps because of his Shakespearean roots, Branagh realizes that, when adapting a well-worn text, he needs some glitz and gimmicks to refresh the script.

Murder Again

A Haunting in Venice
Image Credit: 20th Century Studios.

The director/actor’s latest outing as Poirot, A Haunting in Venice, continues the trend of grandeur and all-star casts he began with Murder on the Orient Express. Based on Christie’s novel Hallowe'en Party, the action catches up with Poirot in 1947. The former detective has retired following the events of Death on the Nile, despite constant appeals from private citizens to take on their cases. The arrival of Halloween coincides with that of his friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), an American writer. Oliver has come to Venice to research her next book: a takedown of self-proclaimed medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), whom Oliver deems a fraud.

Poirot and his bodyguard, Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio), accompany Oliver to a séance at the home of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), a retired opera star whose daughter died under mysterious circumstances. Police ruled the girl’s death a suicide, though Rowena attributes it to a curse. Years before, the Drake home had served as a children’s hospital during a plauge. The cruel staff let dozens of the children die, and Rowena suspects their spirits inflicted revenge on her daughter. She hopes Joyce can make contact with the young girl's spirit.

Of course, because A Haunting in Venice derives from an Agatha Christie story, it should surprise no one that the séance goes berzerk, all kinds of supernatural occurrences abound, and at least one person ends up dead. A terrible storm keeps the attendees trapped in the house with no hope of police intervention. The circumstance prompts Poirot back into action, though he, too, begins experiencing inexplicable sights and sounds.

Glossing The Dusty a Haunting in Venice

Image Credit: 20th Century Studios. 

More than that, we will not reveal here. So much of the pleasure of a Christie mystery comes from all the plot twists and reversals. Branagh, working from a script by Michael Green, takes some liberties with the original novel to great effect. Director and writer whittle down the cast roster and reimagine several roles. The shifting dynamic allows the audience to get to know each character in more depth and allows the actors to shine. Reilly gets some standout moments of dramatic flare, as do Jamie Dornan as a troubled doctor and Jude Hill as his young son. Indeed, Hill gives one of the film’s standout turns as a child of quiet dignity and responsibility beyond his years. Had Hill faltered for even a moment, the whole movie might have come apart. It speaks volumes that an actor so young, with only three films to his credit, can hold his own against award-winning thespians.

Speaking of award winners, A Haunting in Venice marks Michelle Yeoh’s first film since her Oscar win earlier this year. Here, she revels in playing an eccentric character, and Branagh augments her performance with some dizzying camera work, as when rooms appear to rotate around Joyce. The director also allows her to show off her dramatic range. When she and Brangah’s Poirot go toe-to-toe in one scene, Yeoh transforms her character using only her posture and voice. Her spinsterly psychic character takes on a sultry beauty, and a sudden sexual magnetism between her and Poirot emerges. Moments like this testify both to Yoah’s abilities and Branagh’s love of actors. For all the scenic vistas and operatic setpieces in these movies, we get the sense that Branagh sees them foremost as an opportunity to work with great performers. That, as much as any visual delight, makes A Haunting in Venice a pleasure to watch.

A Crucial Misstep

venice 2
Image Credit: 20th Century Studios.

Though Branagh has an eye for talent and an incredible knack for getting the best from his actors, he does make one major casting mistake here. No one can deny Tina Fey’s abilities as a performer or the far-reaching effect her comedy has had over the past 20 years. She can command the small screen in a comedy sketch or a role on 30 Rock tailored to her personality. But for all her gifts, Fey is not an actress, at least not one suited to the big screen. Her casting as a plucky novelist makes sense—Fey is, after all, a plucky writer herself. Though Branagh shoots her in a series of close-ups, Fey never emotes, and the big screen saps her of the personality that buoys her on television. She makes appropriate acting choices but doesn’t have the charisma to register as a presence on screen. It also doesn’t help that she never quite lets go to become a character rather than a version of herself. A more experienced big-screen comedienne—Renée Zellweger, Melissa McCarthy—would have made a better choice here.

Despite her shortcomings, Fey performs passably in the role, and Branagh has the wisdom to split most of the dramatic weight between himself, Reilly, Yeoh, Dornan, and Scamarcio. The director also has fun building atmosphere through his gothic setting, dressing his ornate sets with shadows and pouring water. Branagh evokes the same creepy tone he used in Dead Again and musters some genuine frights from this well-trod tale. Under the lens of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, the canals and architecture of Venice have never looked so clean and polished.

A Haunting in Venice may not qualify as great cinema, but it does make great use of cinematic scope and detail. Striking visuals and a few script updates allow the story a revitalized energy that transcends its chamber roots, and an appealing cast, led by Branagh’s stuffy, brooding Frenchman, makes the story captivating in every frame of the film. The success of Barbie and Oppenheimer earlier this year suggests audiences want to return to the cinema for something other than the standard Marvel or actioner formula. Branagh has made a movie for the audience to pass the popcorn and wonder whodunit again.

Rating: 8/10 SPECS

A Haunting in Venice opens in cinemas on September 15.