Kenneth Branagh’s third outing as Hercule Poirot, A Haunting In Venice, adds a surprising edge of horror to the classic whodunnit.
Thinking of Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot series thus far, the first thing to spring to mind is likely his ridiculous facial hair. Then perhaps a stacked ensemble cast pumping their characters full of personality. And, ultimately, Branagh’s mystery films are comforting, formulaic whodunnits where his calculating and observant detective can decipher exactly the whos, whys and hows of the murders that take place.
The whodunnit is formulaic in general. That’s why A Haunting In Venice is so wonderfully surprising – it does something that you would never in a million years expect. It takes a cold and rational character and places him in a haunted house, in a scenario where his rationality and his belief systems are challenged by an entirely unconventional crime. That premise is based on one of Agatha Christie’s less popular works, Hallowe’en Party, and Michael Green’s script definitely embraces the paranormal aspects of this tale.
The supernatural edge to the latest Poirot adventure is immediately revealed in a rather unexpected way – an early attempt at a jump scare involving a pigeon. Initial shock over, we cut to the detective himself, happily retired in Venice, spending his time eating pastries and being followed around by a bodyguard with questionably violent methods of keeping the former sleuth unbothered.
His self-imposed isolation is broken by Tina Fey’s Ariadne Oliver, an author who’s an old friend (despite the detective’s claim that he has none). In an often creepy and sombre film, Fey’s exuberant line deliveries are a ray of light. Her character drags (almost literally; it’s a hard sell) Poirot to a Halloween party hosted by former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly).
Her palazzo is a building with a grim past, one that we’re inventively introduced to via a shadow puppet show. There are metaphorical skeletons in the closet as children were supposedly murdered there years prior, and Rowena’s own daughter fell from the balcony to her death a year ago. The distraught mother has planned a seance for later that night. Hosted by Michelle Yeoh’s medium Mrs Reynolds – a role that allows her some scene stealing physical acting – the seance ends in an unfortunate way. An accusation of murder leads to an actual murder, and – reluctantly – Hercule Poirot and his moustache are once again on the case.
As with the previous two films, the build-up to the investigation takes some time as the cast of suspects are introduced. When Poirot commences his interrogations, though, A Haunting In Venice is fantastic. Its commitment to being a genuinely creepy, suspenseful thriller is really admirable. The palazzo is a dark and shadowy place, and there’s little in the way of lighting. As inexplicable events continue to occur and the tension builds, the film encourages you to look into all of the shadowy corners it presents and to question, like Poirot, whether you could really believe in ghosts. There are some great jump scares, too, ones that involve things much scarier than pigeons.
Amid the horror elements, though, is the signature dry humour that Branagh’s version of the character is known for. It’s lacking a little bit compared to before, but that’s the trade off. The horror edge is fully committed to, and in return some of the campiness of the previous instalments is lost. That becomes apparent when you look at the supporting characters. Death On The Nile had some flat characters, but it also had interesting performances from the likes of Gal Gadot and Dawn French to liven them up. Here, we’re treated to Jamie Dornan playing a tormented doctor and the young Jude Hill as his wise-beyond-his-years, bookworm son. However, everyone’s playing it straight and as a result many of the characters remain uninteresting. Many of them are not fully fleshed out enough to be properly empathised with, nor fun enough to entertain regardless.
As unconventional as this investigation may be, the mystery itself ends up being rather straightforward. It’s not one that I found easily guessable, but the film very much returns to the traditional whodunnit formula for its conclusion.
I’ve always found, however, that the conclusion to a mystery film isn’t the most important part, it’s the journey to find the truth. The journey that A Haunting In Venice takes us on is fresh, atmospheric, spooky and entirely unexpected – in the best possible way. It’s the best haunted mansion film of the year. And a good Hercule Poirot film to boot.
A Haunting In Venice is in cinemas now.
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