First came Murder on the Orient Express (fine), next came Death on the Nile (less than fine, but hooray for memes), and now comes A Haunting in Venice (fine). This is the third film featuring the cutrent iteration of Hercule Poirot, and the third time Kenneth Branagh has directed the picture while also playing the world-renowned, goofily mustachioed detective.
Based extreeeeeeeeeeeemely loosely on the Agatha Christie novel Hallowe’en Party, A Haunting in Venice finds Poirot attempting to enjoy his retirement in the titular city. His relaxation does not last long, because of course it doesn’t. His friend, the popular mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) requests that he attend a seance with her. Why? Because no matter how married to science and reason Ariadne wishes to be, she needs a second, more critical eye to view the methods of Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a medium whose abilities are difficult to refute. Poirot reluctantly accepts and soon finds himself attending a Halloween celebration complete with the seance in question. You see, famous opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) is mourning the loss of her daughter, who jumped to her death in the canals of Venice after being jilted by her lover. Tonight, on all Hallow’s Eve, a group of friends and relatives will help Drake through the grieving process by attempting to contact the deceased young woman one last time.
And wouldn’t you know it? One of these characters ends up dead as well, and Poirot once again finds himself responsible for solving a multi-tiered mystery surrounded by pretty people, all of whom are suspects!
A Haunting in Venice, while superior to the laughably bad Death on the Nile, is perhaps the sleepiest entry in the trilogy thus far. In a lot of ways this modality works for the material. Pre-release press seems to be leaning away from the franchise aspect of the film, instead choosing to focus on the seasonally appropriate supernatural plot line. One could be forgiven for expecting this to be a haunted house movie. Branagh ably embraces this from the director’s chair as well. Venice is a wonderful location to imbue with shadows and fog, and Branagh’s love for Dutch angles suits the eery visage of Venice’s architecture, especially at night. For outdoor shots, real locations were used, which places this flick well above the abysmal digital settings of Death on the Nile. The indoor sequences which make up the bulk of the film were shot at Pinewood Studios, and for the most part look fantastic and tangible. Credit to the production design team — this is the easily the most strikingly realized setting in the franchise thus far.
Yet even though the movie is often quite pretty, the mystery itself is largely uninvolving. It’s very hard to care about the solution, especially since the overall formula ends up being about the same as in the previous films: Poirot locks the doors and interviews everyone, and once enough time has passed he unspools a long-winded speech in which he explains who did what and why, citing clues that none of the other characters were smart enough to see, and that we at home were quite obviously primed to notice during the first two acts of the film. Although it’s worth noting that this time around, Poirot takes a page from the Saw playbook by pointing to a handful of clues that we were never even shown in the first place. These omissions should be a huge liability, as trying to solve the mystery alongside our hero is part of the fun, but the fact of the matter is that while the “why” of it all is not something one could decipher without the script in hand, the “who” of it all is painfully obvious from the get-go.
The relatively uninvolving nature of the mystery is helped by the pace of the edit, but that isn’t to say that the edit is necessarily good on its own merit. I found myself feeling similarly about the tempo of Venice as I did with Branagh’s own Belfast. Namely that every scene feels like it’s rushing to get to the closing credits as fast as possible, even down to individual shots. While this does help to keep the audience engaged, if only because there’s so little space to be distracted, the resulting film is one that doesn’t allow itself any breathing room. And without this narrative real estate, it ends up feeling simultaneously overstuffed and undercooked. Sure, it’s nice that the film clocks in at under two hours (a rarity in today’s franchise-heavy landscape), but one gets the sense that a proper Christie adaptation would do much better with a longer runtime (or would perhaps function best as a miniseries). It’s fun to see Poirot figure out the machinations of murderers and monsters, but the characters affected by it all are as expendable as they are colorful — more interesting by virtue of who plays them than by how they behave.
It’s a shame considering the opportunity presented by the general format of a Christie whodunit: a large cast of potential scene-chewers that, by very nature of the concept, can never be reused. There’s a world where, much like in the heyday of the MCU, popular performers are eager to be a part of the Poirot legacy, but with the added bonus of not being contractually obliged to keep returning ad nauseum. Camille Cottin, who gives the performance of the film, should’ve been given so much more to do. Kelly Reilly, one of the more exciting performers working today, could’ve been a character whose name I didn’t have to look up twice while writing this review. Jamie Dornan, who continues to surprise with both his role choices and his range, is a non-entity here, and it’s not through any fault of his own. Ideally, the Poirot team should be taking a page from the Knives Out team. This style of mystery offers so much opportunity for high-energy fun, but Venice seems to squander it at every turn.
All said, despite the film’s many shortcomings, and its almost pathological determination not to fulfill its potential, A Haunting in Venice remains a good time at the movies. While the mystery is far from compelling, the film goes down rather easy and provides a solid distraction. It’s fun to see the ways that the one returning character, Poirot, is being developed in his own right (which, as I understand it, marks a significant departure from the novels), just as it’s fun to see the supporting cast doing what they can with what they’re given. In the world of “turn your brain off” movies, it certainly does the job. It’s just that an Agatha Christie adaptation should probably be the sort of thing that turns your brain ON.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green, Agatha Christie
Starring Jamie Dornan, Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey, Kenneth Branagh
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes