This coming week sees the release of Kenneth Branagh’s third adaptation– after 2017’s Murder On the Orient Express and 2022’s Death On the Nile– of an Agatha Christie story focused on the fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, entitled A Haunting In Venice (based on the 1969 novel Hallowe'en Party). I saw an early screening of the film in IMAX this evening, and below are my thoughts along with a brief, mostly spoiler-free recap.
A Haunting In Venice sees Poirot (played once again by the director) happily retired in the titular canal-based Italian city, when he is called upon by his mystery-author friend Ariadne Oliver (30 Rock’s Tina Fey, endlessly charming as Christie’s self-insert character, who popped up in a number of stories over the years) to attend a seance at an old children’s-hospital-turned-mansion, and debunk the psychic medium (a wonderfully eccentric Michelle Yeoh, following up on her Oscar-winning performance in Everything Everywhere All At Once). When the bodies start piling up at the party, which– like the title of the novel implies– happens to take place on Halloween night– there’s the usual rogue’s gallery list of suspects: a grieving mother (Pride & Prejudice’s Kelly Reilly) who recently lost her adult daughter to an apparent suicide, a doctor with PTSD from World War II (Jamie Dornan from The Fall), his suspiciously precocious son (Belfast’s Jude Hill), a religious nanny (Stillwater’s Camille Cottin), and so forth. And from the outset Poirot is intent on finding the real-world cause of the strange goings-on in this mansion, until he himself starts to hear and see things that he can’t explain.
That’s all I’ll say about the plot, but you should know going in that the story adheres faithfully to the murder-mystery genre’s usual beats and format, if not the specific details of the Christie novel– many of the characters and motivations have been changed or simplified, in a successful effort to streamline the proceedings. And “successful” is definitely a word I would use to describe this extremely effective adaptation– Branagh undeniably accomplishes setting the appropriate mood and atmosphere for a story like this, mostly through the use of jaw-dropping locations (I’m dying to know how much of the production was shot on soundstages vs. actually in Venice, and I’d love to shake the hand of the production designer regardless). The work of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (of Disney’s live-action Cinderella remake) also goes a long way in helping the filmmaker strike an ominous tone throughout the film via plenty of dutch angles and fish-eye lenses. The movie has a great cast of actors, to be sure, but I’d argue that the real star is its look, and I found myself in awe of both the gorgeous sets and the suitably gloomy lighting for pretty much all of A Haunting In Venice’s lean 100-minute runtime.
So the cast and visuals are great (let’s throw the sound design in there as well), but is the story satisfying? I think you probably know what to expect from this series by now if you’ve seen the other two… or have consumed any kind of detective fiction from the past century-and-a-half or so, but that’s not to say you’ll be able to guess the whodunit’s ending. The clues are there for both Poirot and the audience to piece together, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that at least one of them does so by the movie’s conclusion. It all works well enough to seal the deal and chalk this effort up as a triumph, though I was personally disappointed with one aspect of the outcome that could truly have set A Haunting In Venice apart from others of its ilk. To say what that aspect was would be a spoiler in and of itself, and your mileage may naturally vary, but that’s just a small nitpick regardless. This is a movie that absolutely does what it sets out to do, and I can’t imagine anyone leaving the theater feeling otherwise. It also happens to be coming out around the perfect time of year, just as Halloween season is picking up and folks are (hopefully) looking for entertainment that’s both smart and spooky.
A Haunting In Venice opens nationwide on Friday, September 15th.
My grade: 4 out of 5 upward-curled moustaches