Kenneth Branagh scares up a good story in A Haunting in Venice
For the last six years, actor/director Kenneth Branagh has been trying to breathe new cinematic life into old Agatha Christie stories. However, he failed miserably in his first two attempts, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, serving up stories that were never mysterious in the slightest. And yet, he’s back for a third try with A Haunting in Venice.
Very loosely based on Christie’s book Hallowe’en Party, the film finds Hercule Poirot (Branagh) living in contented retirement in Venice, Italy. An old friend, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), convinces him to attend a Halloween party where the hostess, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), is set to hold a séance led by Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to get in touch with Drake's daughter, who died by suicide.
Oliver is hoping Poirot will expose Reynolds as a fake, but a series of eerie incidents followed closely by the death of one of the party attendees brings Poirot back into full detective mode. Poirot and Oliver systematically interview the surviving members of the party while trying not to get freaked out by a variety of scary things happening around the house.
Teaming up again with screenwriter Michael Green (who wrote the previous two films), Branagh has finally figured out the formula for making an effective Christie adaptation. Strangely, though, it involved getting rid of 90 percent of the original Christie story. While the names of a few of the characters remain the same, the setting and almost the entire plot have been changed from the 1969 book, freeing the filmmakers up to not have to remain faithful to anything Christie wrote.
This turns out to be a good thing, as the film has a solid unnerving tone, even if true mystery still escapes Branagh. The story takes place in a driving thunderstorm, which, combined with the events inside the house, imparts a feeling of constant impending doom. As it’s set at Halloween, the film also offers up a few jump scare attempts. Branagh tries a little too hard in this aspect, but it still aids the overall feeling of the film.
The film takes place mostly in one location, but Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos up the claustrophobic factor by using close-up shots liberally. There’s also a good deal of humor, aided greatly by the presence of Fey, who knows how to deliver a cutting line. The ultimate solution to the central mystery leaves a little to be desired, but because almost everyone is a suspect, it’s difficult for anything to be a shock.
Branagh plays Poirot with aplomb for a third time; even if you question his accent, he still knows how to hold the attention of the audience. Fey and Yeoh are welcome additions, as is Ricardo Scarmarcio as Poirot’s bodyguard. Branagh rewarded two of his Belfast actors, Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, with parts, with Hill once again overshadowing some of the adults.
While not quite enough to say that Branagh should keep making Christie adaptations, A Haunting in Venice is a vast improvement over the last two films. With solid acting and a story that doesn’t strictly follow a pre-determined outcome, it’s a surprisingly pleasurable experience.
A Haunting in Venice opens in theaters on September 15.