Every time Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot leaves the house, someone dies. In 2017 he hopped aboard the Orient Express and someone died. In 2022, he took a trip down the Nile, and someone died. He should probably only go places by bicycle. Agatha Christie wasn’t going to write Murder on a Penny Farthing, was she?
Somewhat appropriately, the Hercule Poirot of A Haunting in Venice has had the same thought. He spends his days locked up in his Venice apartment, refusing to see anyone or take any cases. He’s somewhere between retired and a recluse, and rather than find that frustrating, he’s enjoying the quietude.
Barrelling into that quiet is Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, playing pretty much the same character as she does in Only Murders in the Building). She’s a journalist who has a deal that Poirot cannot possibly refuse. She has found a paranormal psychic who can do things, feel things, that no other clairvoyant can. She wants Poirot to join her at a seance, performed by the psychic (Michelle Yeoh in a brief but captivating role), so that he can determine whether she is, in fact, a charlatan. There’s no murder here: just a problem to be unravelled.
Oh, Kenneth, you should know better. He agrees, hops into a gondola and attends the seance, hosted at a crumbling mansion owned by Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly, Yellowstone). Rowena is a famous singer who abandoned her craft once her daughter died. She wants to use the seance to contact her daughter, to be with her one last time. As anyone would do when dealing with something so private, she invites most of Venice. So, in comes Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Doonan), the daughter’s American fiancee Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen) and a host of other potential suspects.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the seance goes haywire and someone dies. Because this is Poirot and Agatha Christie. Nobody questions Poirot, the little death-magnet. The charlatan-shaming pivots to a murder case, as we all guessed it would. Except, Poirot doesn’t completely ditch his original intention. That question of whether the supernatural exists burns in the background.
A Haunting in Venice, as you may have guessed from the synopsis, is a bit of a departure from both Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. There’s a distinctly lower star-wattage, for one. The first two films have come with their own curses, as Kenneth Branagh hired actors who would immediately go on to have real-life controversies. You probably wouldn’t get Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer and Russell Brand together for a movie in the modern age. Perhaps that’s why he seems to be dialling down the star-power of A Haunting in Venice. Aside from Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh and Tina Fey, perhaps, this is more of a low-key affair.
But the biggest change is tone. A Haunting in Venice is just as much a horror movie as it is a whodunnit, with Poirot seeing and hearing all sorts of spooky goings on as he goes about the case. The director of photography takes his lead, veiling the lens in darkness as we move about dilapidated architecture. The house feels like it will tumble into the canals at any point.
A Haunting in Venice is more successful as a horror movie than it is a murder mystery. Actor-director Kenneth Branagh proves adept at creating a claustrophobic space within the mansion, and the scares are more psychological than they are jumpy. As long as you steer clear of the question of whether they are truly supernatural – this being a Poirot movie, you know what the answer is going to be – the insidious moments are unsettling. It can be an entertainingly spooky watch.
It may just be us, but while the shift into horror was welcome, the murder mystery itself didn’t engage us as much – at least not in comparison to the earlier movies. A large problem is that we just didn’t get as invested in the characters, and the horror pivot might be the reason. So much time is spent twitching curtains and listening for whispers that we only get a scene or two with each of the suspects. We neither cared about them, nor knew enough about them.
But the real killer is the telegraphing. There were two supposedly inconsequential moments that we were supposed to ignore, but they so obviously screamed “this is a clue!” that we rolled our eyes and jotted them in our notebooks. They both incriminate the same person, and it doesn’t take much to put two and two together to make “murderer!”. We desperately hoped we were wrong, but no – it was exactly who we thought. How they did it is another matter – there is a particular logical leap that we can’t begin to fathom – but who seems trivial.
Still, it would have been so easy to take a different route. Kenneth Branagh could have rifled through Agatha’s library and chosen another classic (this is only loosely based on a short story called Hallowe’en Party). He could have waltzed through Hollywood’s elite and picked and chosen his cast. Instead, he’s pivoted in another direction entirely. He’s drawn on an entirely different genre, letting less well known actors take the stage. The result might not be as glitzy or quite as compelling as a mystery, but we’d argue it’s more effective.
Where does Poirot go from here? A mediocre box office suggests this might be his last outing. But there’s a tinge of sadness to that: with A Haunting in Venice, it finally felt like Poirot was going somewhere interesting.