A Haunting In Venice Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Best Poirot Movie Yet Is A Masterful Horror Film

This Agatha Christie adaptation is a well-crafted, lean and ultimately satisfying murder mystery
A Haunting In Venice Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Best Poirot Movie Yet Is A Masterful Horror Film

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Michael Green

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill

Duration: 103 minutes

Available in: Theatres

Kenneth Branagh is not a small man. “He was hardly more than five feet four inches” is how novelist Agatha Christie describes her fictional detective Hercule Poirot, but Branagh, who’s been playing him in a series of self-directed films for the past six years, hasn’t got the memo. It’s not just his stature, though Branagh certainly isn’t short. It’s that he plays Poirot with a showboating largesse that simply fills up the screen, towering over the rest of the characters even as he rounds out his casts with big-name actors. In his hands, Poirot is not just a star detective, he’s a star. With an adoring in-universe fandom to match.   

Poirot’s long had a preternatural knack for solving cases, but what Branagh’s movies are more interested in how each case solves him – each murder mystery exists to reveal one piece, of Poirot’s psyche, his past, the origin story of his moustache (which takes up significant screen time in 2022’s Death On The Nile), collected to assemble the puzzle. Each movie is structured such that Poirot is the one learning a lesson by the end, ranging from the banal (that there is a grey area between right and wrong) to the more personal (that, despite losses endured, there’s something to be gained from being vulnerable and open to love).

In A Haunting In Venice, however, Branagh finally, mercifully, lets Poirot be small.

New Dimensions To The Character

Set 20 years before the release of Hallowe'en Party, the Christie book on which it’s based, and in Venice instead of the English village of Woodleigh Common, the film opens with the detective retired and resolutely uninterested in any cases coming his way. Why is never mentioned, though his unbroken spell of rest and relaxation is broken when his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) drops in. Fey plays the novelist like her smooth-talking Cinda Canning character from Only Murders in the Building instead of the scatterbrain she’s described as in Christie’s books. Her character arrives with an interesting proposition – she believes a medium (Michelle Yeoh) hosting a local séance is the real deal and needs Poirot’s sharp mind to confirm. Complications ensue. The medium intuits that the deceased girl whose spirit she’s in touch with was murdered and that her killer is at the séance.  

Branagh plays Poirot as much more subdued and hesitant this time around. He’s out of his depth, and off-balance (quite literally, after suffering a blow to the head). “I am Hercule Poirot, no?” he asks, rather than states definitively. No arrogance, no grandstanding. There’s no lengthy prologue driving home his deductive skills, as in Murder On The Orient Express (2017), no facial-hair backstory as in Death On The Nile. “I am Hercule Poirot,” he declares in another scene, only to be met with the swift rejoinder: You were Hercule Poirot.  

More Visually Inventive Than The Other Movies

Playing a small man lets Branagh go large with his direction, with Venice being the most formally accomplished of his Poirot Trilogy yet. Trading the opulence of his previous outings – who can forget Gal Gadot's stated intent to drink as much champagne to fill the Nile – for a decrepit palazzo inside which much of the story unfolds, he crafts a visually sumptuous horror story filled with characters who are spectres of their former selves. Branagh makes the crumbling, water-damaged space seem cavernous, engulfing its characters whole. Dutch tilts, fish-eye lenses and extreme high and low-angle shots abound. A murder is witnessed in silhouette. Poirot’s disorientation is heightened through SnorriCam shots that mimic the intoxication scenes in Dev D (2009). In another scene, the room spins 180 degrees as he runs across it. Shooting in rain-soaked Venice, with its foggy canals and lantern-lit gondolas, gives the film a wonderfully atmospheric effect but Branagh doesn’t use it as a crutch – an early montage plays out like a series of postcards from the city until a piercing scream interrupts the reverie. This film reveals an eye for imagery and a sense of composition that the previous Poirot films so sorely lacked.

In Nile, the camera swiveled around the rest of the characters before finally settling on them in closeup, suggestive of even more showboating from Branagh, this time from behind the camera: Look at the cast I’ve assembled! It did the story a disservice, positioning its players as actors first, characters second. In Venice, the characters get to be people instead of a series of problems to be solved, even if they are still defined by their pain. World War II is another spectre that looms large over them – a party staged early on is for the orphan of war, a doctor (Jamie Dornan) is suffering from “war fatigue”, or what we now know as PTSD, and Poirot’s own past as a soldier colours his perspective.

That’s not to say Branagh has entirely given up old habits. He and editor Lucy Donaldson can’t resist cutting to Ariadne looking suitably impressed every time Poirot makes a deduction. And several characters repeatedly tell the detective what they have in common – existing only to reframe or reinforce his traits. Even so, Venice delivers a well-crafted, lean and ultimately satisfying murder mystery. More than three decades into his career as a director, Branagh has crafted a masterful horror film. And, in playing fast and loose with his source material, he ironically delivers his best Christie adaptation yet.

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