Who could resist the allure of such an opportunity? When it comes to titles, it certainly carries more intrigue than the straightforward “Poirot III.” But let’s be candid here; the film is precisely that: Kenneth Branagh, the director and star, returning once again to inhabit the role of the virtuoso detective, following his swift triumph with “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) and grappling with “Death on the Nile” (2022).
Nevertheless, while Branagh has been diligently delving into Agatha Christie’s literary treasury, he has also ventured into the realm of creative reinterpretation. Devotees of Christie’s work may find themselves perplexed when they realize that the film draws its inspiration from the 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party,” albeit cleverly transplanted from the fictional English village of Woodleigh Common. Screenwriter Michael Green has also taken liberties with the plot, a maneuver that some might regard as astute. The original, as observed by Christie authority Robert Barnard, “feels as though it was spoken into a tape-recorder and never reviewed afterward.”
The film indulges in the opulent atmosphere of Venice, with an abundance of gondolas. Interestingly, unlike the preceding two Poirot films, this one was actually filmed in the location it purports to be set, lending an added layer of authenticity. Yet, there is something even more pervasive—a spectral chill. The year is 1947, and recent tragic events in Venice compel the semi-retired Poirot to spend Halloween night at a grand palazzo with a dark history. Malevolence seems to lurk in the shadows, amidst a sizable ensemble cast, featuring Tina Fey as a quick-witted crime writer, Jamie Dornan as a grieving man seeking solace in strong spirits, and Michelle Yeoh as a celebrated medium who effortlessly oscillates between dry detachment and eerie séances.
As is often the case at gatherings that culminate in murder, there are characters you’d wish had more screen time, and others whose prolonged existence might become wearisome. Nevertheless, Branagh unmistakably revels in subjecting Poirot to an eerie filter, complete with unsettling camera angles, concealed chambers, and pallid children immersed in the writings of Poe in a distant corner. The outcome doesn’t venture into the realm of horror, but much like a host at a Halloween soiree, it is lavishly dressed as one.
Does “A Haunting in Venice” push the boundaries of cinema itself? Regrettably, it does not. Does it inflict any harm with its highly proficient mainstream entertainment, showing respect for both its audience and its role as a cinematic spectacle, akin to Sunday evening television amplified for the big screen? Not in the least. At most, one could argue that the film falls short of the cinematic vision that Branagh occasionally glimpses, one filled with digressions about God, war, and the spirit world—reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s masterful touch.
However, Branagh is not del Toro. He possesses his own strengths, and “A Haunting in Venice” adeptly capitalizes on them. While Venice itself shines as a prominent character in the film, it also exhibits a discerning eye for casting actors who seamlessly align with the prevailing atmosphere. Principal supporting actors Camille Cottin and Riccardo Scamarcio exude the aura of performers plucked directly from a postwar Italian melodrama. The performances are sturdy and impeccably attuned to the film’s tone.
This hasn’t always been the case with Branagh’s previous Poirot adaptations. In “Death on the Nile,” for example, half the cast seemed to embrace melodrama from the outset, which may have prompted Branagh to assert himself prominently in every scene. However, in “A Haunting in Venice,” despite the macabre elements, the film finds its equilibrium. For once, Branagh exudes confidence in the ability of dedicated performances and high-quality visual effects to captivate an audience—a timeless truth that applies to both the cinematic medium and the enchantment it conjures.