movie review

Kenneth Branagh Needs to Make 10 More of These

A Haunting in Venice.
The creepy, moody Agatha Christie adaptation A Haunting in Venice is far from perfect, but it feels like the work of a man rejuvenated. Photo: 20th Century Studios

Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot mysteries haven’t exactly set the film world on fire, so the fact that the director-star continues to make them clearly speaks to his love for these stories and this character. In last year’s Death on the Nile, that affection translated onscreen to the movie’s florid, breathless stylization, as if Branagh were trying to shake us into an appreciation of the old Agatha Christie warhorse. In the latest, A Haunting in Venice, he forsakes the swooping cameras and epic vistas and frantic pacing for something stranger, more insular, and maybe even more refined. He takes Agatha Christie’s little-discussed 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party and turns it into a moody, staccato thriller about the unknown.

Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have taken quite a few liberties with Christie’s original. Not only have they transposed the story to Venice in the year 1947, they’ve also brought in a supernatural undercurrent. On a practical level, this allows A Haunting in Venice to become more of a ghost story and a haunted house tale, with a wealth of jump scares meant presumably to broaden the picture’s appeal. But on a thematic level, it also makes Poirot more intriguing. When we meet him in this movie, he’s given up investigating crimes, having settled into a mopey retirement in Venice, his sole companion the ex-cop-turned-bodyguard, Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio), whom he pays to toss anybody trying to solicit his services into the lagoon. We don’t know exactly what’s happened to Poirot’s mojo, but the postwar setting and references throughout the film to combat trauma provide more than a few hints.

The famed detective is aroused from his spiritual slumber by Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a best-selling crime-fiction novelist and old friend, who invites him to a séance at a local palazzo being conducted by the elegant and mysterious Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a medium whom the usually cynical Ariadne feels may well be the real thing. For Poirot, his refusal to believe in matters of the spirit isn’t just due to his devotion to science, reason, and observable fact; it’s also a measure of his brokenness. “If there is a ghost, there is a soul,” he says. “If there is a soul, there is a god who made it.” This then implies the existence of hope and a pattern to the world, something his experiences have told him does not — cannot — exist.

It’s not long after the séance starts that Poirot unmasks Reynolds as a fraud, revealing that she has assistants hidden inside the house helping create supposedly paranormal effects. (I’m not giving anything away here — we’re still in the set-up.) But then the fun starts. The palazzo they’re in is a legendary one, a former orphanage reportedly haunted by the many children who died there, whose ghosts have been known to exact “the children’s vendetta,” usually denoted by a series of mysterious scratches appearing on the body of the victim. Uncovering Ms. Reynolds’s ruse, it appears, does not stop the many bizarre occurrences in this place. Nor does it stop the grisly, unexplained killings.

In Death on the Nile, Branagh and Green breezed through the primary murder and the many incidents around it (including the ultimate explanation) as if these were the least of their narrative concerns. They do something similar here. They’ve substantially pared down the dramatis personae from Christie’s original, and they’ve also changed the nature of the central crime and its surrounding scenarios. But beyond that, they seem more interested in the dialogue Poirot carries on with Ariadne (and himself) about the nature of belief and the unknown. Poirot sees visions of ghosts, cloaked children hiding behind walls and spectral figures showing up suddenly, so much so that you might occasionally wonder if you’ve accidentally stepped into another Conjuring sequel.

Such genre affectations aren’t all that effective — Branagh is ultimately too playful and goofy a director to pull off a proper jump scare — but the movie’s enduring sense of quiet is unusually effective. This is an eerily silent work, full of long pauses and distant, baffling sounds; even the score seems to be mixed low, as if it were drifting through a window, a dark memory. Branagh also plays with the rhythm, using pace and composition to set us ill at ease. Vast stretches of darkness in the frame are cut through with shocks of color. He shoots with aggressive canted angles and absurd fisheye lenses, then switches to elegant establishing shots, sometimes with surprisingly jagged cuts. At one point, he body-mounts the camera on himself and then follows Poirot into a darkened chamber.

In short, he throws every technical trick in the book at us, like a precocious student just discovering the possibilities of the medium. It’s dorky, but endearing, a throwback to Branagh’s early years as a filmmaker, when his cameras worked overtime to revitalize Shakespeare for the screen. And it succeeds more often than not. Thanks to all this disorienting style, we never quite know what we’re looking at, or what to expect. One wide angle of a dead character’s room looks like the ceiling is slowly taking over the walls. Shadowy figures — statues, sculptures, lamps? — loom in backgrounds, sometimes draped in ominous sheets, peering through the darkness like ghosts.

Film series, especially moderately successful ones, rarely get more interesting or inventive as they proceed. Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot mysteries back in the late 1970s and ’80s started with the spectacle of Death on the Nile and eventually became TV movies, unvarnished and kind of dull. Branagh’s Christie adaptations started off looking like yet another attempt to stay relevant in an industry now completely dominated by franchises, and maybe they are. But they’re also mutating, becoming more offbeat as they continue. A Haunting in Venice is far from perfect, but it feels like the work of a man rejuvenated, determined to use the detective-thriller template to keep trying, teasing out the personal and weird, and tossing new ideas at the wall and seeing what works. I hope he makes ten more of these.

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Kenneth Branagh Needs to Make 10 More of These