Launched on Agatha Christie’s birthday, a month shy of Halloween, A Haunting in Venice sees not only the unravelling of a mystery, but of Hercule Poirot himself. Living in retirement in the city of canals, Poirot’s called upon to unmask a medium. A grieving mother is hosting a séance to reach her departed daughter – a girl troubled by visions of long dead children. Falling to her death from the seemingly haunted house, just who – or what - made it happen? The guests around the table – fewer by the hour? Or the ghosts that even Poirot thinks he sees?
A Haunting in Venice eschews the gilded glamour of the first two outings for Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot and embraces the Expressionist noir of early horror. From journeying outwards on the Orient Express and the sun-kissed Nile, now the journey’s inwards to the heart of darkness. And if not quite a locked room mystery – at least a housebound one.
The visual brilliance which Branagh brings to all his movies cranks up the atmosphere to creepy, cinematic effect. Aping the off-kilter Dutch angles of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Branagh suffuses the house, and Venice itself, with a palpable unease, a Don’t Look Now sense of inevitable doom. A lantern show at a children’s Halloween party gleefully depicts the demise of a houseful of kids in jerkily-jagged cuts-outs straight from German horror.
Michelle Yeoh brings a mysterious, mercurial air as Mrs Reynolds, the may-or-may-not-be medium. Kelly Reilly (Yellowstone) perfectly captures the fractured mind of the grieving Rowena Drake. Fresh from Branagh’s Belfast, Jamie Dorman and the young Jude Hill re-team as father and son – Dorman as the dead girl’s shell-shocked doctor and Hill as the wise-beyond-years boy who takes care of him. And comedian Tina Fey (30 Rock) plays it mostly straight as Ariadne Oliver, crime writer and Poirot’s old friend, who calls him in.
A Haunting in Venice manages the twists in tone beautifully - from the fastidious fun of Poirot enjoying his patisseries, and the knockabout of his bodyguard elbowing a would-be client into the canal, to the queasy sense of the supernatural, ghosts seemingly flitting past mirrors. Avoiding jump scares and loud bangs, Branagh’s matured beyond the hyper-hysteria of Dead Again or the high gothic of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The reveal is worth it. A spot-on cast, the inspired set design, the inventive but unshowy camerawork and score, keep you engrossed and under the spell. And make you forget the ‘eh, what?’ moments of the plot - until afterwards anyway.
Based on Agatha Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party, some Christie fans may quibble at the characterisation of Ariadne Oliver. No fault of Fey, just one of the minor missteps of the script. Like, having established Poirot’s moustache as almost a character in its own right, and a sacredly manicured one at that, would he really have a go at apple-bobbing in a bowl of water? It’s not only his tache that nearly comes a cropper…