After two attempts at Poirot, the third time is the charm for director/actor Kenneth Branagh. Even though he reprises his roles in front of and behind the camera, Branagh’s latest feels like a much different film compared to Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. It’s more dynamic and charismatic, playing with the material rather than shoving it into a stuffy box with lukewarm revisions. The result is a decent murder mystery, but immaculate compared to its preceding entries.
Branagh returns as a more refined and vulnerable Hercule Poirot. As a retired detective residing in 1940s Venice, he’s lured out of his sanctuary by the eager novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey). She tempts him to debunk a medium who will perform an after-hours seance at a Halloween Party. This will be an easy slam-dunk case for Poirot, even if Oliver was hoping he’d be stumped for once. However, there’s more to this night than the tapping of spirits, as a murder and a legacy of torture at the residency leads to a bigger crime. And when Poirot starts hallucinating dark ghosts in the house, his perceptions of the paranormal are challenged.
If this premise sounds familiar but not the title, that’s because this is a looser adaptation of the Poirot story Halloween Party. And by loose adaptation, I mostly mean that the most concrete relation is that it takes place on Halloween. But the Venice setting is perfect for establishing a spooky mystery, complete with the raging waters of Venice’s many canals and the trapped nature of such an environment. The large spaces of a decaying haunted location also bode well for the storm raging outside, adding to the intensity of this tale.
The casting is also far more on point in this picture, mostly because no massive A-talents are phoning in their performances. Kyle Allen is the perfect wild card of a desperate man trying to reconnect with his family. Camille Cottin brings a lot of concern and terror for what lurks in the walls. Jamie Dornan is a mess of a doctor haunted by his past and is only calmed by his astute son, played with odd sternness by the young Jude Hill. Even Michelle Yeoh, for as brief a role as she has in the picture, never mugs much for the camera as she neatly fits into her role as a deceptive and intimidating medium.
The biggest problem with the film is that Branagh seems to go a bit overboard, trying to stress the horror of this Halloween murder. This leads to a handful of jumpscares that wear out their welcome, an abundance of Dutch angles, and titling cameras all over the place. It’s odd because this forcing of the frights in the first act soon settles by the second act but then features a confusing scene of Poirot unearthing a catacomb. At the same time, a mildly inappropriate music choice punctuates the scene. Moments like that took me out of the film, where the costume begins to show its seems.
A Haunting in Venice may not be the best Poirot mystery movie, but it is the best Kenneth Branagh-directed Poirot mystery movie, for whatever praise that might be worth. It was reassuring to see that Branagh has grown with the character, where even his mustache doesn’t feel as over-the-top, and his personality is more unique. It was also refreshing to see Kenneth Branagh willing to try out some new material with the character instead of handcuffing himself to the text. Armed with strong direction and a solid cast, it’s a pleasing theatrical take on the literary detective, perhaps the most inventive in years.