Thursday, September 14, 2023

Film Review: “A Haunting in Venice” Engulfs Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot Into the Dark Arts of Divination, Ghost Stories and Murder

A Haunting in Venice (c) 20th Century Studios

Film: A Haunting in Venice 
In Cinemas 

Premise: The famous and infamous sleuth Hecule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has decided to retire in Venice after his last two cases (one on the Orient Express and the other on the Nile) tested his moral compass. Enter American mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who claims her fictional version of Poirot in her novels made him a celebrity. She’s disappointed in his retirement and convinces Poirot to attend a séance where she hopes he will discredit the medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who has been hired by the grieving opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) to contact her dead daughter, Alicia, who committed suicide a year ago. So, when Reynolds inhabits the spirit of Alicia and says foul play may be involved in her death, things start to go awry in the spooky Venetian palazzo. Is Mrs. Reynolds’ talents fake or was Alicia actually murdered? Luckily, also attending the séance are a host of suspects, including Alicia’s ex-boyfriend (Kyle Allen), Rowena’s religious and disapproving housekeeper (Camille Cottin), Alicia’s mentally unstable former doctor and his young son (Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, playing father and son as they did in Branagh’s Belfast) and Reynolds’ two assistants (Emma Laird and Ali Khan), who may have some secrets as well. And while Poirot starts the evening as a spiritual skeptic, he starts to have visions and visitations from other worldly spirits. Is this an actual haunting in Venice or can Poirot prove otherwise? 

A Haunted in Venice (c) 20th Century Studios

My Take: It would seem after the success of Rian Johnson’s second Benoit Blanc Knives Out film that it would be time for Branagh to retire Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells. Although star-studded affairs, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile felt rather musty and retro in the 21st century. There is an audience for this genre (just look at the popularity of the PBS Mystery series). This time around Branagh must have known he would have to modernize his series, and for his third Poirot outing, his inspiration seems to be the Asian horror films of 20 years ago. Better late than never, I say. With the wonderful cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, Branagh shoots the film from many odd angles and incorporate predictable jump scares with things in mirrors, a lot of thunder and lightning, and even a convenient pet bird to squawk and swoosh over the action at inopportune moments. But his biggest and best change has to be choosing one of Agatha Christie’s lesser-known books this time. The first two were already made into Oscar-winning films before Branagh decided to remake them, and most mystery fans already knew who the murderers were. Here, Michael Green, the screenwriter of all these films, is adapting Hallowe’en Party which even I, who devoured all of Christie’s books as a teenager, remember only as the one with the scary Pumpkin cover and something about bobbing for apples. So, it was cool not to already know the ending, even though the film changes the book’s plot so much that this might as well be a whole new story. The actual murder mystery of it all may not be any more inventive than an episode of Grantchester or Murder, She Wrote, but it’s a fun romp nonetheless and the old mustached detective is growing on me. I’ll keep watching if Branagh keeps making them. 

A Haunting in Venice (c) 20th Century Studios

VIP:  Jude Hill. Big screen Agatha Christie adaptations have always had star-studded casts, but except for the Emmy-winning Tina Fey and the Oscar-winning Michelle Yeoh, A Haunting in Venice is a bit lacking in star wattage. This gives the cast of character actors to shine, and the most surprising is young Jude Hill. He is playing a different character from his energetic and optimistic Buddy from Belfast, playing a more reserved, guardian angel-type character to his erratic and PTSD-ridden father. He and Jamie Dornan have great chemistry as they did in Belfast.  He even has a nice plot twist moment which he handles with aplomb.

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