When Kenneth Branagh last donned Hercule Poirot’s trademark mustache, the famous detective was chugging down the Nile River on a private cruise ship brimming with venomous snakes — that is to say, jilted lovers and shady businessmen. When murder inevitably struck, who better than Poirot to sift through the excuses, alibis, and double crossings to collar the killer? But, as his symbolically clean-shaven face in the film’s closing scene made clear, the emotional and psychic toll of his genius came at too high a cost. Is this the end of our hirsute hero? Not quite. Branagh once again directs and stars in the latest iteration of Agatha Christie’s beloved sleuth, and this time A Haunting in Venice moves the festivities to another watery locale. But unlike the sun-baked pleasure boat that drifted down the Nile, here he takes advantage of the Floating City’s misty canals and creepy palazzi to deliver an eerie whodunit that’s decidedly darker and more supernatural than his previous adaptations.
Loosely based on Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party and set about a quarter century before that release year, Poirot’s signature stache may have returned, but his interest in taking on new cases has not. Instead, he’s decamped to Venice, where he indulges in pastries and relies on his bodyguard Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio) to avoid the line of hopefuls who seek his services, each plagued by mysterious tragedy and in need of answers only Poirot can provide. This self-imposed exile is punctured by the unexpected arrival of his good friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a recurring character within Christie’s universe who, like her creator, is also a mystery writer. In the books, she functions as a stand-in for Christie, inserting subtle clues and providing meta-commentary on the art and science of her craft, but here she’s more often than not a reflection of the audience. Fey’s exaggerated quippiness both offers comic relief and becomes slightly wearying as the film goes on; tonally, one wonders if she’s taking her role too seriously or not seriously enough.
But it’s her arrival that sets the plot mechanics in motion when she convinces Poirot to attend a seance hosted by the renowned spiritualist Joyce Reynolds (a very game Michelle Yeoh). Reynolds seeks to summon the spirit of Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson), a beautiful young woman who went mad in her family’s crumbling palazzo after being rejected by her lover, Maxime (Kyle Allen). She was later found drowned in the canal below, having either jumped to her death or, as Mrs. Reynolds seemingly confirms, a victim of cold-blooded murder. Her distraught mother, Rowena (Kelly Reilly), is eager for answers, while Ariadne is sniffing for a story that’ll boost her book sales. Also present at the seance are Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), the Drake family housekeeper with a hidden past; Leslie Ferrier, the family doctor suffering from war-inflicted demons, and his precocious young son Leopold (Jamie Dormer and Jude Hill, reprising their father-son relationship from Belfast); and Mrs. Reynolds’ assistants, Desdemona (Emma Laird) and her brother Nicholas (Ali Khan).
As far as atmospheric thrillers go, A Haunting in Venice checks all the boxes — to the extent that Brahagh might be mistaken for consulting a mystery-thriller bingo card, ticking off tropes one by one. The seance takes place on Halloween, for starters, and kicks off with a party where revelers wear long black robes and blank-faced masks. The palazzo is shadowy, ancient, and reputed to be haunted (by the ghosts of abandoned orphans who died from the plague, no less). As bodies start piling up, a raging storm traps the group inside. And all sorts of innocuous items, including a basin of apples and a typewriter, become fodder for jump scares (ably assisted by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s unsettling score.) As the plot grinds forward and Poirot collects seemingly throwaway clues, prizes apart ironclad alibis, and pieces together motives, a clearer picture — one involving blackmail, poison, and monomania disguised as love — gradually emerges from the mist. These beats aren’t groundbreaking by any means, but they are nonetheless effective here, especially coupled with the film’s generally chilling atmosphere.
Against these slightly cartoonish haunted house hijinks are sadder and more serious conversations, starting with the tension between Reynolds’ spirituality (which may or may not be fabricated altogether), Ariadne’s willingness to believe in a higher power, Seminoff’s lapsed faith, and Poirot’s stubborn insistence on the superiority of his own empirical faculties. Along these lines, we see Poirot visibly struggle to make sense of humanity’s worst desires and attempt to reason with impulses that simply can’t be explained. Set against a post-war backdrop, when humanity had just endured previously unimaginable atrocities, these conversations are all the more poignant, though also liable to get lost between the film’s catalog of jump scares and other predictable devices. But with spooky season just around the corner, audiences probably aren’t interested in musing philosophical inquiries anyway. In that case, A Haunting in Venice might be just what the (shell-shocked) doctor ordered.
DIRECTOR: Kenneth Branagh; CAST: Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, Kelly Reilly; DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Studios; IN THEATERS: September 15; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 43 min.