Whodunnit fans, rejoice! A Haunting in Venice is the best outing from Kenneth Branagh's Hercule Poirot saga to date — an ingenious, twisty and surprisingly scary murder mystery.
This third instalment has everything working in its favour, including a highly effective spooky atmosphere and a top-notch cast (scandal-free! No Johnny Depp or Armie Hammer here). It's also all the better for adapting a lesser known story, providing freshness and unpredictability away from a well-known ending like in Murder on the Orient Express, and relying on real locations instead of the ugly digitally generated landscapes in Death on the Nile.
With his gloriously large moustache, Branagh's famed detective is back with a much-needed new angle for the growing saga.
Set in 1947's Venice, the movie is a splendid balance of mystery, horror and a bit of comedy, honouring the whodunnit genre in a way that would have made Agatha Christie proud — perhaps even a tiny bit scared.
Based very loosely on Christie's Hallowe'en Party, the story follows a retired Poirot as he gets unexpectedly drawn to a new case by renowned mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey).
The author wants the detective, alongside his loyal bodyguard Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio), to attend a séance in a Venetian palazzo, where famous singer Rowena Drake (Yellowstone's Kelly Reilly) wants to contact her deceased daughter, Alice.
Presiding over the ritual is the enigmatic Mrs Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who believes she can talk to the dead and convey their messages through a typewriter – no need for an Ouija board here.
Helped by Romani siblings and assistants Desdemona (Emma Laird) and Nicholas (Ali Khan), whose dream is to live in Missouri because they are obsessed with the movie Meet Me in St Louis, Reynolds knows how to turn her job into a spectacle, whether it's real or not.
Among the rest of the attendees are some of Alice's acquaintances, including ex-boyfriend Maxime Gerrards (Kyle Allen), superstitious maid Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), unstable doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and Ferrier's incredibly smart young son, Leopold (Belfast's Jude Hill).
When the psychic shockingly reveals Alice Drake didn't kill herself, but was in fact murdered, the doors of the Palazzo close and Poirot ends — temporarily? — his retirement.
There is a murderer among them, and he's going to find out who it is. How could he not?
A Haunting in Venice is deliciously classical, all the traditional rules of the whodunnit laid out for the viewers to enjoy. It's like a Cluedo board opens before our eyes, with characters tagged with incredible clarity and a layered mystery taking shape with each discovery.
Borrowing the wickedness and taste for true crime from her Only Murders in the Building character, Tina Fey is a great presence in the cast, particularly as Poirot's direct contrast and comic relief amidst the tension of the situation.
Despite having been retired for a while, Poirot is still battling inner demons, from war trauma to the loss of former lover Katherine. Luckily, we don't get any flashbacks and the story doesn't focus too much on his past, instead using what we know about the detective to feed into the ghostly atmosphere of the setting.
Here, this highly rational detective is confronted by seemingly inexplicable events, testing the limits of what he is willing to believe. The clash between scepticism and superstition is one of the greatest themes of the story.
Using lens distortion effects and purposefully crooked shots that evoke German Expressionist movies, Branagh dives into a nightmarish version of Venice, where "every house is haunted or cursed". It makes the movie a good double-feature match for Nicholas Roeg's disturbing Don't Look Now, minus the girl in the red coat. Thank God for that.
Atmospheric and immersive, A Haunting in Venice is a truly eerie experience if one is willing to submit to it.
Each letter marked in the séance's typewriter is a thunderous blow as the shadows move in terrifying shapes on the palazzo's ancient walls and the rain falls mercilessly on the outside, turning the canals into an angry sea trapping the protagonists inside the building.
At some points, the movie leans too much into this carefully constructed setting and its unfortunate weather forecast, but it pays off as the tension builds up to a revealing climax.
Despite not being particularly innovative, the movie is incredibly tasteful while playing its storytelling cards cleverly. There's no doubt Branagh has learned from previous mistakes, raising the level of the saga and delivering an instant Halloween classic.
A Haunting in Venice is out now in cinemas.
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