A Haunting in Venice Movie Review
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Just in time for Halloween, Kenneth Branaugh’s A Haunting in Venice (2023), brings not only a star-studded cast, but manages to weave a little-known novel into its first on-screen thriller.
10 years later and retired to Venice following the events in Death on the Nile (2022), Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) attempts to live a life of quiet obscurity. Were it not for his world-renowned detective status courtesy of a thinly veiled character written by American mystery writer and general busy-body Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), he could enjoy his coffee and pastries in peace.
Ariadne disturbs his solitude with a case sure to bring him out of retirement, or at least something she can observe him solving so she can write another bestseller. Operatic chanteuse, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), plays host to a Halloween party for the local orphanage, after which, she will retire with invited guests for a special séance. Having not sung a note since her daughter Alicia committed suicide after breaking off her wedding engagement, Rowena has fallen upon hard times and cannot afford to maintain the upkeep of her crumbling palazzo, formerly an orphanage where children were purportedly mistreated and died. Her guests include family doctor and wartime PTSD sufferer, Dr Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his young son turned caretaker, Leopold (Jude Hill), housekeeper Olga (Camille Cottin), and her late daughter’s ex-fiancé, Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen). Rowena has secured infamous medium, the “Unholy” Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to connect with the lost children, and perhaps her dear Alicia.
Mrs. Reynolds puts on a spectacular performance, unnerving everyone including the spirits of the dearly departed. Because this is an Agatha Christie story, as the evening comes to a close, a guest is murdered. Poirot is reluctantly dragged from retirement, though he doubts what he sees and hears. A fierce storm kicks up, trapping everyone inside. Are the ghosts of children exacting revenge on those they perceive to be a danger or are the modern secrets of the palazzo unearthing themselves?
If you’re a fan of Agatha Christie, you’ll note this is a departure from the novel Hallowe’en Party (Collins Crime Club, 1969), on which it’s based, and that’s okay. A Haunting in Venice is easily the best of Branagh’s Christie adaptations, drawing deeply from the old-world atmosphere of Venice and the allure of a locked room mystery. Moving the setting from England to Venice shifts the tone from post-war jubilation to a chastened and desperate return to normalcy. Screenwriter Michael Green changes the base elements of the story about the unwanted and fatal attention of outlandish lies to the desperate grasp for greed and high cost of keeping secrets. He is learning from his missteps of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile to climb into the skin of his muse. He has crafted an Agatha Christie mystery cribbed from only a setting and a main character and convinced us all this is exactly how she would have written it. Working in the film’s favor is the shortened running time of 103 minutes. Mysteries work best without a lot of space to ruminate and ramble.
Branagh brings an uncertain side to Poirot, a man who has retired from his vocation due to circumstances and a general unease. He is world-weary of the violent offerings of man against man and his preference to settle down alone and unbothered seems less of a choice and more of a necessity. Tina Fey brings a brash over-familiarity to Ariadne Oliver, who is not exactly a friend of Poirot, but very much an acquaintance who has overstayed a dinner invitation. Michelle Yeoh as the mysterious Mrs. Reynolds creates a performance that sets the stage for everything to follow.
Is A Haunting in Venice a mystery that can be solved by the viewer during the second reel? That’s not for me to say as I prefer to let my mysteries unspool themselves, but there are some red herrings, some obvious hints, and shadow puppetry that pushes this mystery drama to the very edge of horror. For me, this was a film of surprises and starts and it made me believe that Kenneth Branagh was finally getting the hang of this directing thing.
A Haunting in Venice is kicking off Spooky Season with a murder-mystery not quite family-friendly, but certainly worthy of a night out.
A Haunting in Venice (2023) is rated PG-13 for mild swears, people getting stabbed, people falling off of sharp statuary, suicide, depictions of “war fatigue” (PTSD), raging canals, skeletons, screams, and creepy masks.