‘A Haunting in Venice’ Review
Or, Poirot and the Puzzling Series.
I AM FASCINATED by Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot series.
These movies constitute a sort of delightfully low-key anti-franchise: Yes, they all star the same character and are directed by the same guy, but they work separately as well as apart, and nothing in the title connects them. You could see it in the advertising for A Haunting in Venice, the first trailer for which unspooled like a pretty straightforward pre-Halloween horror flick—a séance and spooks and scares, oh my—only to reveal at the end that it was, in fact, another Agatha Christie adaptation from the man who made Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.
Perhaps 20th Century Studios wanted to downplay the new film’s connection to that last picture, which underperformed a bit at least in part thanks to its shifting release dates: Originally scheduled to come out in 2020, the pandemic and the concurrent confusion over the state of theatrical and new owner Disney’s commitment to streaming meant the release kept getting pushed back. It also probably didn’t help that during this time costar Armie Hammer found himself fending off accusations of sexual abuse and/or cannibalism.
Whatever the reason, A Haunting in Venice is, like its predecessors, fun and charming and a little self-serious but in the best sort of way, a big-screen, medium-budget picture filled with recognizable faces attempting to solve a series of murders in a single location. You get the sense that Branagh really loves playing Poirot: Here’s an accent he can really chew on, a character whose know-it-all sensibility lends him the ability to affect both world-weariness and modest wonder when confronted by a genuine mystery worthy of his talents.
AS THE FILM BEGINS, Poirot is living in Venice and attempting to be left alone: He has a bodyguard, Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio), keeping at bay supplicants who wish to have mysteries solved by the greatest detective of the day. He lives in solitude, having had enough of the world and its horrors. It is not until mystery author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), whose books are based on Poirot’s own exploits, comes back into his life and asks him to attend a séance led by the mysterious Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) at the home of grieving mother Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) that he is drawn back into the world of murder, mayhem, and death.
Venice is superior to Nile in one very key regard: Watching it, it felt as though the production were actually in Venice. I have no idea if that’s actually the case, mind you—Hollywood’s magic is far more convincing than Mrs. Reynolds’s—but the canals feel like Venice, Poirot’s rooftop pastries feel as though they are really being eaten in the old country, the crumbling home in which the action is largely confined feels like a real palazzo. Outside of a few shots of a seemingly computer-generated skyline that attempt to show us what Venice looked like in the aftermath of World War II, the exteriors left me feeling as though it were taking place in a specific, and real, place. And while I’d wager the crumbling interiors were shot in a studio, the reality of Venice itself seeps into the production, lending it a sort of verisimilitude by proxy.
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Compare that to Death on the Nile, which was, to the best of my knowledge, filmed entirely in England—and it showed. As much as I enjoyed the mystery-solving of that movie and all the performances from all the actors, it all felt incredibly fake because every time a character looked out from their riverboat onto the Nile’s banks or stopped off at an archaeological site, my brain screamed “fake, this is fake, it’s all fake.” The green screen simply couldn’t substitute for the real world.
You can see why actors enjoy appearing in these movies: how often do you get to just stand there and monologue for one of the great Shakespearean actors of our age? Tina Fey feels as though she’s channeling Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy; it’s not quite chipper screwball energy, but it’s close. Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, both of whom Branagh directed in Belfast, reteam as a father-and-son duo here, and they are similarly excellent. And Kelly Reilly has this narrow-eyed glare that communicates grief and malevolence equally eloquently.
And I love Branagh’s work as a director here and in the other films of this series. He gets to be a little showy—for instance, Hill’s precocious Leopold is, at least early on, frequently shot with a distorted fisheye lens, exaggeratedly centering him as a child would center himself—without feeling the need to overwhelm audiences with style. But Branagh is, first and foremost, an actor’s director, and it’s a delight to see the performances he gets out of his costars.
FINALLY, I WOULD LIKE TO REITERATE something I’ve written before with regard to these adaptations: I find Branagh’s approach to murder and the societal damage it does far more serious—and thus, engaging—than I do Agatha Christie’s treatment of the same. Branagh has crafted a neat little triptych of films here, a series about a man whose soul was broken by the horrors of the Great War and who, by this film’s end, has only been able to piece it back together by embracing his abilities and helping people overcome their own tragedies.
Neither blockbusters nor awards bait, Branagh’s Poirots call to mind a better time when Hollywood could churn out mid-budget adult fare that offered up a weekend evening’s distraction. As such, one may be tempted to dismiss them as minor. But I like to think of them as minor miracles: They have more heft than one might expect, and I’m glad we have them.