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Nathan Weinbender reviews "A Haunting in Venice"

Film still of Tina Fey and Kenneth Branagh in A Haunting Venice (2023).
A Haunting In Venice, 20th Century Stud./Kinberg Genre/Mestiere Cinema/Scott Free Prod./TSG Ent./The Mark Gordon Co./Disney, 2023.
Film still of Tina Fey and Kenneth Branagh in A Haunting Venice (2023).


Three films into his Hercule Poirot cinematic universe, and Kenneth Branagh is starting to get the hang of it. His latest foray as director and star, again playing Agatha Christie’s iconic Belgian detective, is called A Haunting in Venice, and it’s another old-fashioned throwback to star-studded whodunits of yore.

Branagh’s earlier Poirot films, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and last year’s Death on the Nile, were perfectly okay—slick, genial, tightly paced—but they also had a fussy plasticity to them. This third film is stranger and more stylish than the others, less an ensemble piece than a classical haunted house tale full of gothic goofiness and a twinge of grief.

What helps is that, unlike its predecessors, A Haunting in Venice isn’t in the shadow of a superior cinematic antecedent. It’s based on a mostly forgotten late-period Christie novel called Halloween Party, though to call it an “adaptation” might be misleading—the screenplay by returning writer Michael Green borrows only minor details from the original text and otherwise concocts an entirely new story.

It also helps that Poirot is more of a recognizable human being this time around. He’s grappling not only with his mortality, but with his agnosticism when he starts seeing things he can’t explain. As the film opens, he has closed his detective agency and is living happily in Venice, but he’s lured out of retirement by longtime friend and mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (played by Tina Fey). She urges Poirot to come with her to a nearby Halloween party, where a psychic medium named Mrs. Reynolds (played by Michelle Yeoh) will be summoning the spirit of a young woman who may have been murdered. And Mrs. Reynolds isn’t just another huckster—she appears to be the real deal.

Poirot follows, skeptical as ever, to a creaky, crumbling mansion right on the canals. The estate is said to be haunted by the vengeful spirits of orphans who were abandoned there years ago, though Poirot is convinced that all the things going bump in the night can be logically explained away. No sooner does the séance begin than a raging storm locks everyone inside. A murder occurs, then another, and what are the odds that everyone in the house has a reason to kill?

This includes the grief-stricken opera singer (played by Kelly Riley), whose dead daughter is at the center of the mystery; the perpetually nervous doctor (played by Jamie Dornan) whose precocious son (Jude Hill) is always pulling at his pant leg; the psychic’s aggrieved assistants, the estate’s longtime housekeeper, the dead girl’s former beau, and even Poirot’s own bodyguard. Meanwhile, Poirot is shaken by ghostly figures that make him wonder if talk of spirits isn’t all fantasy.

Outside of his Shakespeare adaptations, I’ve never much cared for Branagh as a director; even his Oscar-winning quasi-memoir Belfast felt strangely remote and needlessly cutesy to me. Here, though, he has a nice, steady hand, and his regular cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos leans into an arch, baroque visual style with overwrought aplomb—it’s all canted angles, intense close-ups, and dramatic deep focus compositions, all of which bring personality to the film's single location.

I don’t know if A Haunting in Venice is a stratospheric improvement over its predecessors, but it’s at least got me looking forward to Poirot’s next mystery.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.

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  • On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart will be discussing three films that offer up their own versions of frightful scenarios. First up is the theatrical release “A Haunting in Venice,” followed by two foreign-language streaming selections, Chile’s “El Conde” and France’s “Final Cut.”