Saturday, October 7, 2023

A Haunting in Venice: A Review



We now have an Hercule Poirot Cinematic Universe. A Haunting in Venice, the third of Sir Kenneth Branagh's adaptations of Dame Agatha Christie's mysteries, is probably the best of his efforts. Effectively atmospheric and self-contained, A Haunting in Venice makes for a good Christie adaptation. 

Having retired from public life, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) lives a generally quiet life in Venice, declining all offers to investigate real or potential crimes. An unexpected visit from Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a mystery writer and friend to Poirot. Setting it upon herself to draw Poirot out of his seclusion, she talks him into attending a séance to expose Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a medium hired on this Halloween night.

The setting is appropriately spooky: the home of retired opera diva Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilley), which was a former orphanage with a dark history. Rowena seeks to contact her late daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who committed suicide after her gold-digging fiancée Maxime (Kyle Allen) jilted her. Also in attendance are Drake family friend and physician Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), his son Leopold (Jude Hill), loyal Drake family servant Olga (Camille Cottin), Joyce's assistant Desdemona (Emma Laird) and Poirot's bodyguard Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio). While Poirot does expose Reynolds as a fraud who is assisted by Desdemona's brother Nicholas (Ali Khan), there is still something wicked in the night.

There is an attempt on Poirot's life, and Joyce herself is murdered when she is impaled after getting thrown off a balcony. With a storm raging outside and the power out, Poirot now has to both find the murderer and stay sane, for this most rational of detectives begins to see ghosts and hear otherworldly voices. Have the dead really come back to murder the living? There are more threats and bodies to be found before this dark night is over, with more shocking twists in this devilish tale. As dawn rises, Hercule Poirot sets things right and finds himself again, a metaphorical ghost no more.

One of the delights of an Agatha Christie story, book or adaptation, is in trying to follow the plot without giving it too much thought. That is not to say that one accepts everything presented. Instead, the audience accepts that we will get red herrings and surprise twists before the last page. I have read quite a few Christie novels (And Then There Were None being not just a personal favorite but the only book I have read cover to cover in one sitting). I, however, have never read Hallowe'en Party, on which A Haunting in Venice was based. As such, I cannot confirm how close or far A Haunting in Venice stays or strays from Hallowe'en Party.

I can say that Branagh created a very atmospheric film, closer to a haunted house film than a straight-up mystery. Haris Zambarloukos' cinematography and Hildur Gudnadottir's score create an eerie, almost supernatural world. While the film opens and closes with bright Venetian sunlight, most of A Haunting in Venice is dominated by dark tones and at times an almost claustrophobic atmosphere. Christie herself may have rejected the supernatural in her novels, and A Haunting in Venice ultimately does too. However, the mood of the film is excellent, creating a sense of things being off-kilter and menacing. 

The performances are almost all universally good. Branagh has come fully into his own as Hercule Poirot. While it is doubtful that he will ever supplant Sir David Suchet as the definitive Poirot, Sir Kenneth Branagh is nowhere near as comical as Sir Peter Ustinov's version. This Poirot is a haunted man both figuratively and literally. He embraces rationalism and yet finds his own sightings to be almost frightening. Branagh also does something which Hollywood struggles with: bring a multicultural cast without it becoming too much of a focus.

No one questions why an Asian woman is named Reynolds or an Indian is named Nicholas Holland. What makes these castings work is that they are there, but there is no real mention of the diversity. The closest is when Yeoh's Joyce Reynolds asks what Poirot means by "you people". It is soon made clear he meant clairvoyants, but apart from that nothing in A Haunting in Venice suggests that people were cast for the sake of diversity or that it would not work. Yet I digress.

In her small role, Yeoh is strong as the shady medium. Laird and Khan work well as the scheming yet tragic Holland siblings. As a side note, there is great editing when Desdemona and Nicholas are simultaneously being interrogated separately, their competing stories playing off each other. 

The surprising standout is young Jude Hill. Reuniting with his Belfast director, Hill's Leonard is sensible yet still childlike. Protective of his beloved father, Hill plays a bright child who can still believe in ghosts. Whenever he is on screen, he dominates his elders as the boy caught up in the strange goings-on around him. Interestingly, Hill is again playing Jamie Dornan's son. I have never shifted my view that Dornan is just an admittedly pretty face who cannot act. I thought his Leslie was over-the-top in his efforts to play traumatized (his war experience involved witnessing the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp). While he was slightly laughable in his valiant efforts to act, Dornan at least did not fully embarrass himself.

I think it was Fey as Ariadne Oliver who embarrassed herself. Almost if unsure if this was meant to be a comic or serious performance, Fey had a somewhat staccato speaking manner. Her efforts to portray herself as the smartest person she knew (Poirot being the second-smartest) were unconvincing. She was a bit of the sore thumb in the proceedings, but nothing truly horrendous. 

Screenwriter Michael Green, taking his third turn at bat with Branagh's Poirot films, has some issues. It seems slightly ludicrous to think a second victim was killed the way the plot reveals the crime. It also seems strange to have Poirot's attempted murder go the way it did. Minor points, but still a bit curious. Other elements, such as the identity of the blackmailer, do give us a nice surprising turn. A Haunting in Venice also ends on an optimistic note, a welcome surprise given the bleakness of Death on the Nile.  

A Haunting in Venice is well-crafted entertainment. Eerie, atmospheric, with some good performances and a brisk running time of about an hour and forty minutes, A Haunting in Venice works on almost every level.     


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