With A Haunting in Venice, we are reminded that Kenneth Branagh is defined by his indulgences. As a director, he oft casts his favorite leading man: himself. As a filmmaker, his real-life passion bleeds into twisted love stories — in which he also headlines — like Dead Again and Frankenstein, co-starring his offscreen paramours and painting himself a romantic hero, flawed but undeniably hot as hell. He even turned his own childhood into self-aggrandizing lore with the origin story Belfast. At his best, he welcomes us into these unapologetically extravagant films, bursting with emotion, ruddy with passion, radiant with pride. But at his worst, he becomes so focused on his own spotlight that he can forget to make his castmates shine.
So was the case with 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, which enlisted some of the most celebrated actors of the modern age, only to cast them into uncanny valleys of CGI mess and a battle for screen time where only Branagh’s meticulously crafted mustache won. Next was 2022’s Death on the Nile, a sequel so stuffed with A-listers that it ballooned the budget of its predecessor — but only made a third of its box office. Far from embraced, this follow-up was shrugged at by critics and mocked online, where a hokey line-reading from Gal Gadot rivaled the scorn received for her ill-conceived “Imagine” video.
Perhaps chastened, perhaps offered a leaner budget, the British director has scaled back the star power in the third installment of Hercule Poirot’s adventures. For A Haunting in Venice, he has cherry-picked a few household names: Saturday Night Live alumnus Tina Fey, Academy Award-winning actress Michelle Yeoh, and the Oscar-nominated director of Belfast, Kenneth Branagh. Rounding out the ensemble are Kyle Allen (Rosaline), Camille Cottin (House of Gucci), Ali Khan (Everyone Else Burns), Emma Laird (The Crowded Room), Kelly Reilly (Yellowstone), Riccardo Scamarcio (John Wick: Chapter 2), and Belfast‘s Jamie Dornan and child actor Jude Hill.
Though the cast is capable and compelling, something is missing from this Agatha Christie adaptation. And it might well be that Branagh is playing it safe.
A Haunting in Venice tells a tale of murder and ghostly mystery.
From the opening scene, the Italian city of canals is painted as a place of beauty and eerie mystique, thanks to the artful framing of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. In the day, red rooftops stand out against green lanes of water. But at night, the local architecture reaches up, gray and threatening, like the withered claws of the undead reaching skyward. Here is where Poirot (Branagh) has come to retire from the deadly game of homicide investigation. A devoted recluse, he has hired a furrow-browed bodyguard (Scamarcio) to keep away pesky would-be clients and only interacts with the chipper boater who brings his twice-daily pastry deliveries. That is, until his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Fey) appears at his door.
A mystery writer who found inspiration in Poirot before, Ariadne pleads with him to come to meet her new muse: a medium known as the Unholy Mrs. Reynolds (Yeoh). On Halloween, a seance is to be held in a supposedly haunted home — a former orphanage — where a heartbroken opera singer (Reilly) hopes to speak to her daughter, who died young and under mysterious circumstances. Some say the ghost children who have plagued this place since the actual plague drove the girl to suicide. But ever the skeptic, Poirot has his doubts about all this paranormal theorizing.
Naturally, he takes the case. Not long after his arrival, the bodies start piling up while a storm rages outside, and soon they’re all ensconced in a ghostly whodunnit — complete with vengeful spirit. Based on the Agatha Christie novel Hallowe’en Party, A Haunting in Venice gives a spooky flourish to the world of Poirot, but Branagh swerves away from anything actually scary.
A Haunting Venice aims for old-school but lands on dusty.
Set post-World War II, there’s a quaintness in this murder mystery, peppered with stereotypes like the heiress-hunting American bachelor (Allen), the superstitious help (Cottin), the traumatized war doctor (Dornan), and the precocious kid who is borderline creepy (Hill). As with his past films, Branagh keeps the tone buoyant, even as tales of murdered children are whispered in cavernous settings. Shadow puppets are introduced to illustrate the house’s history, their imagery repeated when recounting the haunting of the doomed lady. All of this is charming, reflecting Poirot’s own perspective, which favors gentility and joy over brooding and horror. However, this is a horror story.
As the night wears on and the deaths mount, there should be a growing fear in the chests of the audience members. While Poirot is challenged by sights he cannot explain, we should be rippled with goosebumps. But Branagh is committed to keeping it cute. Some might suggest this is thematically appropriate, given his nostalgia for vintage Christie adaptations heavy on star power and juicy plot twists. And yet, Vincent Price made scores of movies that had liveliness about them while also being damn scary. 1959’s House on Haunted Hill, which focuses on a house party plagued by murder and vicious spirits, seems a natural inspiration point! Yet Branagh doesn’t dare get as unnerving as this classic.
Instead, his scares are all lobbed with a soft touch and an unspoken promise that our hero really has nothing to fear. Death is for the new characters, never Poirot. And in that, there’s a deflation of the tension that might be stoked in horror.
A Haunting in Venice stumbles in plotting and casting.
Perhaps proper scares might have helped keep this film from dragging. As it is, the mystery here is too easy to puzzle out — in part because Branagh hits some clues with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. (If you wondered why a common household object gets a prolonged close-up, you’re halfway to the answer.) As such, the story begins to drag with Poirot strolling from one austere room to another, unearthing backstories and secrets but missing one glaring element.
Here, star power is missed. The supporting cast is largely solid. Reilly strongly shoulders the role of a grieving mother. Yeoh is slyly restrained as an unlikely psychic. Scamarcio’s role is thin, but he brings bravado to it. Cottin is riveting as a glowering maid. However, A Haunting in Venice lacks the thrill of oohing and awing over an astonishing assemblage of big-name talent. And some miscasts make this distance from its predecessors sting. For one, Allen is so lifeless in the role of snotty American bastard that he might as well be an AI composite. But more disappointing is Fey, who can’t seem to shake the comedic timing of 30 Rock.
Opposite Branagh’s patient and cerebral detective, the big-mouthed American broad with a grand opinion of herself is fun. Where others marvel at his intellect, Ariadne is quick to poke holes in his theories or sling barbs just so she’s not bored. It’s a dynamic that echoes the one seen in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, wherein Phoebe Waller-Bridge was the snarky sidekick to Harrison Ford’s grumbling, aged hero. However, Fey suffers in this comparison. Where Waller-Bridge has been able to translate her Fleabag energy to the big screen in roles big and small, Fey has often struggled with the transition. Here she is funny, but there’s an aching air of showmanship that makes her every line ring performative, better suited to sitcom than a feature film. She can’t find the same wavelength that Branagh’s quirky Poirot is on, and so everything between them feels off.
A Haunting in Venice is the best of Branagh’s Poirot movies.
Yes, for all my complaints, this is undoubtedly the best of this trilogy. Its settings feel more real than the foggy backdrops of Murder on the Orient Express. Its cast better grasps the material and the throwback tone than the ensemble from Death on the Nile. While I yearned for sharper scares, I appreciated the eerie atmosphere that Branagh wafts into the first act like a chilling fog. And though Fey feels an odd fit for the film, she is undoubtedly entertaining, especially as the pesky fly on the wall of the prim Poirot’s process.
In the end, A Haunting in Venice is a solidly engaging and occasionally surprising whodunnit. However, as a fan of Branagh’s sweatier, more sensual, and outright riskier horror, I couldn’t help but wish for more.
A Haunting in Venice opens in theaters Sept. 15.