If there’s anything to be gleaned from A Haunting in Venice, it’s that Kenneth Branagh should make more horror movies. His quasi-notorious allegiance to cinematic trickery – lopsided Dutch angles, unusual POVs, and frenetically edited sequences – has often felt out of step with the subjects depicted on screen. It proved a distraction from the glossy adventures of Marvel’s Thor, the domesticity of Belfast, and the elegant logic of his previous Agatha Christie adaptations: 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and last year’s Death on the Nile.
But, for his third film based on Christie’s Poirot novels, Branagh has turned his attention to one of the author’s lesser-known stories, Hallowe’en Party. Its humdrum, English hamlet locale has been swapped for the fog-choked canals of Venice, and a crumbling palazzo with death in its walls. As it turns out, it’s fairly unsurprising that an artist with roots in the illusionist, symbolic world of Shakespearean theatre, who’s already adapted Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, would turn in a capable, classic chiller that’s actually quite scary when it needs to be. Finally, all of his gimmicks have found their home.
Christie’s original story has been entirely refurbished by screenwriter Michael Green, embellished now with the series’s continuing obsession with trauma and psychoanalysis – Poirot, of course, can only be Poirot thanks to a baptism-by-fire-approach to tragedy and loss. To know how death operates, one must be familiar with its stench. After a valiant attempt at retirement, Poirot is apprehended by his old friend and celebrated author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a recurring character in Christie’s work who essentially serves as her stand-in. She’s convinced she’s found someone who can finally stump the great detective: the “unholy Ms Reynolds” (Michelle Yeoh), a medium.
Reynolds’s presence has been requested by a local Venetian, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). Her daughter died by suicide, drowned in the canal after leaping from her bedroom balcony. The au pair, Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), speaks of ghosts in hushed tones and vengeful spirits of the children locked away, left to starve during the plague. But this, of course, is a Poirot mystery, and Reynolds’ séance ends with a body impaled on one of the statues in the vestibule.
A Haunting in Venice largely does away with the overstuffed, CGI bombast of Branagh’s earlier Poirot tales. John Paul Kelly’s production design and Sammy Sheldon’s costumes are immaculate. There are fewer A-listers in the cast (it does feature a reunion of Belfast stars Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill), and the performances lean occasionally into heightened dinner theatre, with lines delivered out and towards the audience. Yeoh is the exception and, unexpectedly, the contrast works – she’s the centre of every scene she’s in, that unplaceable quality of movie star charisma here given a paranormal sheen. Branagh’s Poirot continues to be a welcome presence: a slightly romanticised depiction of the detective, who’s self-aware enough, with his accent and his double-decker moustache, not to feel too pompous.
A Haunting in Venice’s conclusion, entirely different to Christie’s, is perhaps the least satisfying of the three films; the individual clues aren’t quite prominent enough to register, nor is the logic tight enough, to incite that satisfying “a-ha!” moment. But the director’s haunted spaces have a touch of 1961’s The Innocents to them, while his off-kilter camera allows the typical frights – disembodied lullabies, figures in reflections, mysterious patterns on walls – to feel strange and hallucinatory. I’m sure Branagh could happily keep making these Poirot mysteries, but, after A Haunting in Venice, he should instead consider giving Blumhouse a call.
Dir: Kenneth Branagh. Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Michelle Yeoh. 12A, 103 minutes
‘A Haunting in Venice’ is in cinemas from 15 September