Review: Kenneth Branagh Returns To Agatha Christie, In Front of and Behind the Camera, for A Haunting in Venice

Based loosely on the Agatha Christie novel Hallowe’en Party and once again adapted by Michael Green, A Haunting in Venice sees director and star Kenneth Branagh taking on the role of crack detective Hercule Poirot to solve an unsolvable mystery (as he did in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and last year’s Death on the Nile), this time with a possibly supernatural twist. 

Set in post-World War II Venice, the film finds Poirot in full retirement, despite having a horde of people at his doorstep regularly, hoping he’ll cast an eye on their mystery. He always declines. He has a full-time Italian bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) to help keep away the riffraff, when an old friend shows up in the form of mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, seemingly plucked out of a fast-talking film of the 1930s or ’40s). She has a case that she knows he will not be able to resist, one that involves the death of a young woman; a supposedly haunted, cursed, decaying palazzo; and famed medium Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who plans to contact the dead woman during a seance at the behest of the woman’s bereaved mother, former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly).

Knowing Poirot hates con artists pretending to dabble in the dark arts in order to extract money from grieving family members, Oliver convinces him to come to the seance and engage in a bit of debunking. The building is a former hospital where many children died in a fire, and it is said that the spirits of these children freely and frequently roam the halls, but it’s the ghost of Rowena’s daughter that everyone is interested in. Mrs. Reynolds makes a convincing case that she sees and knows things that other don’t and probably shouldn’t, but by the time the seance is done, one guest is dead.

A torrential rain outside has trapped the many guests in the home, making for the perfect scenario for Poirot to solve the closed-door murder. Among the possible suspects are the dead daughter’s ex-fiancee (Kyle Allen); her doctor (Jamie Dornan); the doctor’s wise-beyond-his-years young son (Jude Hill—he and Dornan also played father and son in Branagh’s recent Belfast); and Rowena’s religious-zealot housekeeper (Camille Cottin, recently seen in House of Gucci and Stillwater). As is the tradition, nearly every character has their chance to seem like the likely suspect, with the least likely candidate turning out to be the real killer. But A Haunting in Venice tacks on a couple more murders for good measure, including turning the dead daughter’s alleged suicide into an additional homicide for good measure.

What little we see of the outside world of Venice is positively gorgeous, thanks in large part to director of photography Haris Zambarloukos. And even what he shoots of the palazzo is ominous and typically creepy—you can almost smell the dankness of the place. When Poirot starts to have spectral visions of his own, the film turns from a simple murder mystery into something more akin to a ghost story, only without a single real scare to make that element interesting. I really do admire most of the actors in this film, and what atmosphere is generated here is largely due to their work, combined with a terrific score from Hildur Guðnadóttir. But the core mystery never pulled me in, and the whole movie feels like it’s spinning its wheels and taking us nowhere (or maybe a metaphor involving a gondola would be more appropriate).

The whole movie seems like an excuse to pull Poirot out of retirement by reminding him what he’s been missing, and that even the world’s greatest detective can have his senses tested from time to time. Better to stay working and sharp than wither away in exile. I actually think Branagh is the perfect actor to play Poirot. The role offers him the chance to ham it up a bit, and play a larger-than-life character whose mental inner-workings are somehow on full display. He also gets to direct himself in exaggerated, heightened situations that don’t require him to adhere to the laws of reality exclusively. But A Haunting in Venice never quite got its hooks into me, even in the minimalist way Branagh’s previous two Christie adaptations did. The screenplay feels threadbare, and the addition of supernatural elements made the experience less interesting, not more. A part of me hopes he keeps on making these Poirot works, and another part of me thinks trilogies are great.

The film opens exclusively in theaters on Thursday.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.