By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey and Michelle Yeoh
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green
20th Century Studios
Horror isn’t the first type of movie that comes to mind when you think of Kenneth Branagh, but he has definitely shown an aptitude for it in the past–if you ask this reviewer, anyway. Beyond his well-received suspense thriller DEAD AGAIN, which edged into serious fright territory, I was one of the few admirers of the heightened theatricality Branagh brought to MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN. In A HAUNTING IN VENICE, his third adaptation of another venerated genre author, he brings a similarly sumptuous Gothic veneer and occasional shock tactics to his third Agatha Christie film after MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and DEATH ON THE NILE.
Those films were, by the very nature of their stories, travelogues told on expansive canvases. A HAUNTING IN VENICE, based on Christie’s novel HALLOWE’EN PARTY, is more of a traditional locked-room mystery, or in this case, a locked house. There is in fact more than one of these in the film, if you consider that one of them, in a sense, is Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh) himself. As the 1947-set story begins, the great detective’s many years of investigating crimes, and exposure to the dark side of humanity, have led him to become a recluse, shutting himself away from society–albeit in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, gloriously captured by Branagh’s regular cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos.
The one person whose company Poirot keeps on a regular basis is his bodyguard Vitale (Riccardo Scarmarcio), who runs sometimes violent interference against locals clamoring for Poirot’s detective services. Then he receives a visitor he doesn’t turn away: Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), an old friend who has become a best-selling author by drawing on Poirot for her mystery novels. Now she has become intrigued by a medium named Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), and wants Poirot to accompany her to Joyce’s latest séance, to determine whether she truly can communicate with the dead.
This ritual is to take place at a supposedly haunted palazzo, following a Halloween party that allows Branagh to revel in the power of spooky storytelling. There’s a sort of movie-within-the movie here as eye-catching shadow puppetry is used to relate the building’s legend: It was once an orphanage where the children were abandoned and left to die by the doctors, and their spirits have sworn vengeance against those in the medical profession. The ghost that Joyce has been called on to contact, however, is that of Alicia, the deceased daughter of former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). Once the party throngs have left, a small group remains to take part in Joyce’s séance, in which she does appear to truly channel Alicia’s specter. But this being a Christie story, not all is as it seems, and soon one of the guests is dead and an attempt has been made on Poirot’s own life. But is the culprit one of the living, or one of the dead?
That supernatural question adds extra intrigue to the whodunit, and screenwriter Michael Green (taking some liberties with the PARTY novel, and incorporating elements of Christie’s story “The Last Séance”) threads ruminations on life and death through the narrative. The shade of the recently concluded WWII hangs heavy over some of the characters, also including Rowena’s family physician Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), and without overemphasizing the point, Branagh, Green and the actors let us see how that is what truly haunts them. In particular, there’s a captivatingly performed tete-à-tete between Poirot and Joyce in which they express their opposing views on spirituality.
Everyone in A HAUNTING IN VENICE’s cast, in fact, gets a chance to shine, and reveal their backstories or secrets at well-timed moments. Also part of the ensemble are Camille Cottin as Rowena’s devout housekeeper Olga, Jude Hill as Dr. Ferrier’s inquisitive son Leopold (his second time playing Dornan’s child for Branagh after BELFAST), Kyle Allen as Alicia’s former fiancé, who comes off at first like a jerk but shows another side as the film continues, and Ali Khan and Emma Laird as Joyce’s mutually protective brother-and-sister assistants. They’re all good enough to keep you intrigued, and keep you guessing once Poirot has locked the palazzo doors, convinced the murderer is human and among them and determined to suss out their identity.
Branagh the director, however, does a good job of suggesting that otherworldly forces are at play, as he and Zambarloukos use odd angles and tight close-ups to sustain that tension. The night is dark and stormy, of course, and A HAUNTING IN VENICE is rich with atmosphere and a sense of impending doom, bolstered by the mesmerizing score by JOKER Oscar-winner Hildur Gudnadóttir, while involving us with puzzling out who or what is the villain. It is also, for those who have been following this series, a resonant development of Poirot’s character from the previous movies, as he has been psychologically defeated in part by the very pursuit that has previously defined him. Yet he can’t resist the temptation of a good mystery in A HAUNTING IN VENICE, and that will likely be true for audiences as well.