After taking on a pair of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels for his first two Hercule Poirot movies, director and star Kenneth Branagh goes in the opposite direction for his latest Christie adaptation, A Haunting in Venice. The decision to scale back proves to be the right one, resulting in Branagh’s best Poirot movie yet.
Drawing from Christie’s lesser-known 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party allows Branagh and returning screenwriter Michael Green more leeway, and A Haunting in Venice is a very loose adaptation, keeping almost nothing from the novel aside from some character names and the Halloween setting. After approaching both 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and last year’s Death on the Nile as large-scale blockbusters with all-star casts, Branagh keeps A Haunting in Venice more contained. It’s largely set within a single labyrinthine old house, and while the cast includes familiar faces like Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, and Jamie Dornan, it’s not as distractingly celebrity-packed as Branagh’s previous two Poirot movies.
Fey is A Haunting in Venice’s major addition to the franchise, playing one of Christie’s best-known characters, mystery writer Ariadne Oliver. She adds some welcome levity to a series that can be a bit grim, providing a counterpoint to Branagh’s brooding, PTSD-afflicted Poirot. Branagh and Green set A Haunting in Venice in 1947, as renowned detective Poirot has retired from investigating for a quiet life in Italy. He even employs a local bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) to fend off the many would-be clients clamoring for his services.
One of the only people to get past Poirot’s defenses is his old friend Ariadne, whose best-selling books featuring Finnish detective Sven Hjerson were inspired by Poirot himself. She initially approaches him not to solve a murder, but to attend a séance at the home of retired opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), so he can discern the techniques used by supposed psychic medium Joyce Reynolds (Yeoh).
Of course, a murder soon occurs anyway, and with a raging storm making Venice’s canals impassable, the séance attendees are trapped inside Rowena’s house as Poirot puts together the clues to root out the killer. With Ariadne encouraging him, he reawakens his passion for crime-solving, while also wrestling with his internal demons. Branagh approaches A Haunting in Venice as a supernatural-tinged mystery, complete with jump scares and possible apparitions.
Branagh has handled vaguely supernatural material previously, in his goofy noir-style mystery Dead Again and in his adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but here he effectively leans into the ghost-story tone in a way he never has before as a filmmaker. This is still a Poirot story, though, so it’s reasonable to expect that the apparenty paranormal phenomena will all have logical explanations in the end.
Green constructs an almost entirely new mystery from the scraps of Christie’s novel, and to his credit it fits in seamlessly with Christie’s style and the Poirot canon. At this point, Branagh has the familiar beats of a Poirot story down cold, and of course A Haunting in Venice ends with Poirot gathering all the suspects in a room and explaining every detail about how the murder was committed and why. With a shorter running time than Branagh’s previous Poirot movies, A Haunting in Venice moves swiftly, and the exposition-heavy ending never drags.
As Ariadne, Fey makes a case for a spin-off series focused on another notable Christie creation, and Reilly and Camille Cottin (as Rowena’s loyal housekeeper) make strong impressions as characters with emotional connections to the departed. Yeoh has relatively minimal screentime, but she’s entertainingly cryptic as the doomsaying oracle. Although devoted Poirot fans may be disappointed that Branagh and Green stray so far from the source material, A Haunting in Venice marks the first time that Branagh has really made Poirot his own.
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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for About.com. He has written about movies, TV, and pop culture for Vulture, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.