A Haunting in Venice

In 1947 Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) only thinks he has retired when his bodyguard Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio, "John Wick: Chapter 2") interrupts his breakfast with an unexpected visitor.  Intrigued by an article on ‘The Unholy Muse,’ clairvoyant Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh, "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once"), and dazzled by one of her séances, American mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, TV's '30 Rock') enlists the old friend she’s based most of her books on to help her debunk the woman when she performs another ritual for opera star Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly, "Calvary," TV's 'Yellowstone') in “A Haunting in Venice.”

Laura's Review: C

After beginning his Poirot franchise with the dreadful “Murder on the Orient Express” adaptation, writer/star Branagh took a big step up with his second, “Death on the Nile,” which, while far from perfect, was an entertaining throwback.  Now he’s moved his timeline ten years into the future and while the craft of the film is notable, it suffers from the same underwritten characters and weak narrative as writer Michael Green’s first (here adapting Agatha Christie's 'Hallowe'en Party' and straying too far from the source material).  A mini “Belfast” reunion, with that film’s star Jude Hill playing the precocious Leopold Ferrier, son of the PTSD-addled Dr. Leslie Ferrier played by his “Belfast” dad Jamie Dornan, only calls attention to how awkwardly utilized the latter is and the casting of TV’s most notorious character as this film’s mourning mother makes her immediately suspect.

Branagh himself has settled into his more melancholy Poirot, the character’s fussy sensibilities apparent in his dual-tiered moustache and morning pastry delivery.  But it is the appearance of a simple apple, Oliver’s tarter, abstemious choice, which identifies his visitor, a symbol fatefully bobbed, then forgotten until its ludicrous use in unraveling the mystery.  Oliver, whose character is a stand-in for Christie herself, is redefined by Branagh as a ‘fast talking American,’ perhaps to suit Fey, and yet Fey is just too modern to suit the character, another instance of attention-calling casting.

Everything takes place over Halloween night where a party for orphaned children is winding down, but has shone a light on the morbid past of Rowena’s eerie palazzo where children were reportedly left to perish during the plague and continue to haunt the premises.  The séance, though, is for Rowena to once again talk to her beloved daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who sickened after her fiancé Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen, 2021's "West Side Story") called off their wedding, later plunging to her death in the canal from her bedroom balcony.  Rowena makes no bones about her hatred for Maxime, believing him a gold digger, yet he arrives for the séance with a printed invitation from a mysterious source.   

Reynolds arrives on a lantern lit gondola and lets Poirot know that she is well aware that he is out to discredit her.  She quickly spooks the assembled though, speaking in what Rowena says is Alicia’s voice, questions answered on an unattended manual typewriter.  But while Poirot quickly uncovers the latter as a trick, he cannot explain the supernatural events which follow. Alicia’s accusations of murder are also quickly followed by a new, undeniable homicide, and, after Poirot insists on locking everyone inside, yet another.

Outside of Branagh himself, the only characters who resonate at all are Camille Cottin’s ("Stillwater") housekeeper Olga Seminoff, who loved Alicia, and, to a lesser extent, Hill’s observant Leopold, Yeoh not getting enough of a chance to portray anything other than spooky conveyance.  Emma Laird (TV's 'Mayor of Kingstown') and Ali Khan (TV's 'The School for Good and Evil') are merely red herring fodder as Reynolds’ sibling assistants.  The mystery itself is complicated by an unnecessary betrayal, its solution a mishmash of far-fetched events (oddly, “A Haunting in Venice” is the second movie of the year after “The Lesson” to prominently feature poisonous rhododendrons).  What elevates the film is its spectacular setting, Alicia’s palazzo bedroom a spectacular mix of childlike fantasy and moldy antiquity.  Branagh's cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ unusual angles and Hildur Guðnadóttir's ("Tár) score create what there is of the film’s eerie, haunted quality, but in the end “A Haunting in Venice” is the cinematic equivalent of ‘it was a dark and stormy night…’

Disney releases "A Haunting in Venice" in theaters on 9/15/23.