“A Haunting in Venice” is Kenneth Branagh’s best Hercule Poirot film. It’s also one of his best films overall, thanks to the way Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green respectfully adapt the source material (Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party) while also treating it as an opportunity to make a relentlessly clever and visually dense “old” movie using cutting-edge technology.
The film is set primarily in a palazzo that appears to be as massive as Xanadu or Castle Elsinore (it’s a blend of actual Venice locations, sets, London sets, and visual effects), and the majority of the action takes place during a massive thunderstorm. The violence pushes the PG-13 rating to the breaking point.It’s entertaining with a sinister undercurrent: think of it as a horrible gothic cousin of “Clue,” or something like Branagh’s own “Dead Again,” which centred around former lives. At the same time, “A Haunting in Venice” is an empathic portrait of the death-haunted mentality of those from Branagh’s parents’ generation who emerged through World War II with psychic scars, questioning what had been won.
Christie’s original work, set in then-present-day Woodleigh Common, England, was released in 1969. The story is transplanted, set 20 years earlier, has an international cast of characters thick with British expats, and retains a few key elements, including the recent violent death of a young girl and the insinuating presence of an Agatha Christie-like crime novelist named Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who claims credit for creating Poirot’s reputation by making him a character in her writing. Aridane finds Poirot in a Venice flat, where he’s retired from detective work and appears to be in an existential crisis (though one he’d never disclose unless asked). He appears to be committed to a life of solitude, which is not the same as loneliness. He tells Ariadne that he has no friends and doesn’t need any, and he appears to mean it.
Ariadne’s sales have dropped, so she forces Poirot to attend a Halloween Night seance at the aforementioned residence, hoping to develop content that will give her another hit. Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a figure named after the untrustworthy little girl in the original Christie story who claims to have witnessed a murder, is a celebrity in her own right. Reynolds intends to contact a murder victim, Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson), the adolescent daughter of the palazzo’s owner, former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), and maybe learn who committed the crime.
Of course, there are many more people gathering in the palazzo. All of them become suspects in Alicia’s murder and the ensuing cover-up killings that are so common in these types of situations. Following the first bonus killing, Poirot confines himself and the rest of the cast in the palazzo and declares that no one can leave until he has solved the mystery. The gallery of possibles includes a wartime surgeon named Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), who suffers from severe PTSD; Ferrier’s precocious son named Leopold (Jude Hill, the young lead in Branagh’s “Belfast”), who is 12 going on 40 and asks unnerving questions; Rowena’s housekeeper Olga Seminoff Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Alicia’s former boyfriend; Mrs. Reynolds’ assistants Desdemona and Nicholas Holland (Emma Laird and Ali Khan), war refugees who are half-siblings.
It would be unsporting to reveal too much about the rest of the plot because no one goes into a murder mystery wanting to know that kind of information ahead of time, and “A Haunting in Venice” is very much its own thing. Reading the book won’t help either, because the relationship between source and adaptation is similar to that of later James Bond films, which may take a title, some character names and locations, and one or two ideas and invent everything else. Green, who also penned the current “Death on the Nile” as well as “Blade Runner 2049” and much of the series “American Gods,” is a consistently superb screenwriter of new material derived from or inspired by previously existing material. His work balances commerce and art, reminding nostalgia-driven viewers in the “intellectual property” era of why they enjoy something. Simultaneously, Green introduces daring new components and tries a different tone or focus than spectators are likely to expect.
What’s most fascinating from that perspective is how this Poirot mystery fits in with the popular culture being created in post-World War II Allied countries. Classic post-war English-language films like “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Third Man,” and “The Fallen Idol,” as well as mid-career Welles films like “Touch of Evil” and “The Trial” (to name a few classics that Branagh seems keenly aware of), were not just engrossing, beautifully crafted entertainments, but illustrations of a pervasive collective feeling of moral exhaustion and soiled idealism—the result.
As a result, the jaded Poirot appears to be an agnostic who virtually sneers at communicating with the dead. Green and Branagh even give him a monologue about his disillusionment that echoes Christie’s comments near the end of her life, when she was growing bitter about what she perceived as rising crime and violence in society, as well as increasingly cruel tendencies in humanity as a whole, and yoking it to the postwar period rather than the 1960s. The children in the novel are orphans of war and post-war occupation (some of them were fathered by soldiers who afterwards returned home without accepting responsibility for their acts). There is mention of “battle fatigue,” which is what PTSD was known as during World conflict II; during the previous conflict, it was known as “shell shock.” The plot revolves around the economic desperation of native citizens, previously wealthy expatriates who are too emotionally and often financially shattered to resume their pre-war lifestyle, and mostly Eastern European refugees who didn’t have much to begin with and do the country’s grunt work. The overarching impression is that at least some of these characters would practically kill to revert to their former selves.
For obvious reasons, Branagh was compared to Orson Welles early in his career. He was a wunderkind talent who rose to international prominence in his twenties and frequently starred in productions he created and managed. He had one foot in the theater and the other in the film industry. He was a fan of both classics (particularly Shakespeare) and popular film genres (including musicals and horror). He had the theatrics of an impresario and the ego to match.
He’s never been more openly Wellesian than he is right now. This film has a “big” atmosphere, as all of Welles’ films do, even though they are made for pennies. But it’s not self-important, wasteful, or clumsy; it’s small and focused, moves through each scene as quickly as possible, and clocks in at 107 minutes, including credits. Film historians will love the many references to the master’s work, such as foreboding views of Venice referencing Welles’ “Othello” and a screeching cockatoo right out of “Citizen Kane.” At times, it appears that Branagh held a seance and channeled Welles’ spirit, as well as the spirits of other directors who worked in a black-and-white, expressionistic, Gothic-flavored, very Wellsian style (including “The Third Man” director Carol Reed and “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May” director John Frankenheimer).
Richard Brooks’ 1967 adaptation of “In Cold Blood” and Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” have also been recognized as influences by Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. Movies just don’t look like this anymore, which is a shame since when they do, the excess may be more fascinating than a style that prioritizes plot above graphics. Fish-eye lenses, Dutch tilts, hilariously ominous close-ups of significant objects (including a creepy cuckoo clock), extreme low- and high-angles, and deep-focus compositions that arrange the actors from foreground to deep background, with architecture, bits of furniture, and sometimes actors’ bodies looming in the foreground are used in the film. Branagh and editor Lucy Donaldson time the cuts so that the more ostentatious shots (such as images of Branagh and Fey seen through a metal screen of a fireplace with roaring flames in the foreground) are on-screen just long enough for the viewer to register what they see and laugh at how far the film is willing to go for the effect.
Intriguingly, like recent Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh films, “A Haunting in Venice” was shot digitally (albeit in IMAX quality), and the low-light interior scenes make no attempt to replicate the look of film stock. The photographs have an unreal hyper-clarity but also a shimmering, ethereal quality, particularly in close-ups when the actors’ eyes appear to be lit from within.
The film will be released in theaters on September 15th.