Just a year after the release of the seemingly cursed Death on the Nile, Kenneth Branagh is back with another Hercule Poirot movie, this one dealing with an actual curse. A Haunting in Venice represents a significant shift in tone from its predecessors, eschewing the glitzy travelogues of Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express (2017) for a spooky ghost story. The supernatural thriller not only features great performances from a large cast, including Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey, and Jamie Dornan, but also shows off Branagh’s versatility as a director.
Michael Green, who also wrote the screenplays for Branagh’s previous two Poirot movies, takes a loose approach to adapting Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party. In all honesty, he takes little but the premise and the names of the characters, instead putting together a fresh and original story of ghostly children, a shell-shocked doctor, and a mysterious murder.
The film opens in postwar Venice, whose eerie canals and palazzos lend a spooky atmosphere to the proceedings. Poirot (played once again by a mustachioed Branagh) has retired, content to enjoy his daily pastries and tend to his garden, his spirit dimmed by the suffering and tragedy he’s witnessed. Many hopeful fans are scared off by his bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio, best known in America for John Wick: Chapter 2), but Poirot’s old American friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) refuses to be turned away. Oliver has made her fortune as a very successful mystery writer with a detective character based on Poirot himself.
She invites him to a children’s Halloween party, being thrown in a supposedly haunted palazzo for the orphans of the city, and – more intriguingly – to the seance being held after. Retired opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly, Pride and Prejudice, Yellowstone) hasn’t been at peace since the tragic death of her daughter and hopes to reach her through the celebrated medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). But her child might not be the only thing lurking in the mansion, supposedly haunted by the ghosts of many children who died of the plague.
But Poirot isn’t a believer – in psychics, ghosts, or even a spiritual realm. Oliver is convinced by Rowena’s stories and the legends around Joyce and asks him to attend the seance to “spot the con” she can’t. She thinks that if the medium can stump Poirot, then she must be. The other attendees of the seance include the family doctor still suffering from his time at war (Jamie Dornan), his son who seems a little too at home amongst the spirits (Jude Hill), Joyce’s assistants who are keen to profit off their boss’s powers (Emma Laird and Ali Khan), the Catholic housekeeper (Camille Cottin), and Rowena’s daughter’s ex-fiancé (Kyle Allen) who broke her heart before her death . However, the seance soon turns deadly, and Poirot is pulled out of retirement to determine who within the palazzo is a cold-blooded killer.
As an actor, it must feel like a blessing to get a role in a Kenneth Branagh movie because it’s a good indication you’ll get another role from him in the future. After their success as father and son in Belfast, it’s great to see Dornan and Hill reunited in A Haunting in Venice. It’s not even hyperbolic to say that perhaps Branagh is the only person who should be directing Dornan these days; he knows how to get the best out of the actor, casting him in another sad dad role. While Hill was good in Belfast, he really shines here, managing to toe the line between creepy and odd well enough to keep the audience guessing while also drawing real emotion from the audience as he tries to care for his father.
Reilly also gives a compelling performance reminiscent of Michelle Pfieffer in Murder on the Orient Express, while Yeoh seems to be having great fun once again as the deadly serious medium who tells Poirot, “I didn’t ask to be who I am.” It’s an interesting contrast to the more flamboyant psychics we often see in film, though Yeoh certainly gets her opportunity for dramatics, giving a rather chilling performance. Allen, last seen in Rosaline and The Greatest Beer Run Ever, perfectly keeps the audience guessing, making it difficult to discern if he’s a villain or not.
The cast’s performances are enhanced by the period costume design by Sammy Sheldon and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s eerie score. Most impressive, though, are John Paul Kelly’s production design and Celia Bobak’s set decoration, as they create a palazzo in which it does seem that the spiritual realm is closer than usual. From the intricate Adam and Eve clock to the unsettling toy rabbit, their work creates the perfect world in which to tell a ghost story.
Lucy Donaldson’s creative editing and Haris Zambarloukos’s sometimes wild cinematography may be off-putting to some, but they make perfect sense within the context of a reveal later on in the film. They might be a bit puzzling, but they suit Poirot’s confused mental state as even he questions if the house’s living occupants are the only ones there.
The film never makes the full leap into being a horror film, but there are plenty of jump scares that will startle you out of your seat. Based on the rest of Branagh’s filmography, you wouldn’t expect him to be skilled as a thriller director, but he effectively morphs this Poirot film from a mystery into a ghost tale. He weaves together the supernatural elements and the detective search amongst the living in a way that never feels disjointed and uses both to illuminate the inner machinations of Poirot’s mind, as he is dealing with much more than just trying to solve this one murder.
A Haunting in Venice is such a perfect light horror Halloween flick that it’s somewhat confusing that it’s not being released in October. But considering it’s coming out on my birthday, I certainly won’t complain about the presence of a ghost story with my favorite detective. I’ll just have to watch it again on Halloween.
20th Century Studios will release A Haunting in Venice on September 15 only in theaters.