Filmmaker and actor Kenneth Branagh returns as Agatha Christie’s most charming detective Hercule Poirot, replete with his version of the fabled mustache, in A Haunting in Venice, a rather fun little jaunt based on the story Hallowe’en Party. In addition to starring in the film about murder most foul, Branagh also directed the tale re-set from its original British locale to the sinking-est city in all of Italia.
Here Poirot has retired to the canals, where he’s left casework behind for a queue of needy would-be clients on his doorstep and daily pastries, gardening and, probably, mustache combs. He’s really simplified his existence when a friend and author from the states named Ariadne Oliver (a capable if unremarkable Tina Fey) arrives to coax him back into the fray with a seemingly impossible setup: A medium is scheduled to hold a seance at the most haunted house in Venice, and Ariadne thinks she can get a book out of it. She’s all about due diligence and thus invites Poirot to come kick the tires, as it were, and see if the medium is for real.
Said medium (the ever-brilliant Michelle Yeoh) does indeed wish to contact the dead, namely the daughter of the opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) who bought the haunted house shortly before the kid died mysteriously some months ago. Obviously a whole mess of people attend the seance, some end up dead and Poirot re-learns why he loves detecting in the first place. Throw in a few red herrings and a surprising twist ending, and baby—you’ve got a Christie plot.
Branagh has certainly eked out his own take on the much-performed Poirot, and though he’s no Albert Finney, he certainly goes the extra mile with that Belgian accent in his third appearance as the character following Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. Fey can’t quite keep up with the perhaps more studied actor, despite her reciting a few good lines throughout the film. Is it possible she was hired for her killer transatlantic accent impression? Maybe so. Either way, the good stuff doesn’t get rolling until Yeoh’s medium character arrives all full of tears and barely-whispered portends of death.
The wider cast of suspects is a veritable who’s-who of detective fiction, from the tortured WWII war doc (a melodramatic Jamie Dornan) and his creepy bookworm kid (Jude Hill) to the ultra-religious housekeeper (Camille Cottin), the deceased girl’s former fiancee (Kyle Allen) and a retired cop who has been working as Poirot’s bodyguard (Vitale Portfoglio). A Haunting truly excels, however, in setting up a whodunnit with tried and true horror tropes: Did a bunch of orphans die in this house? Check. Does Poirot hear them singing? Check. Do the seance participants get stuck in the house because of a storm? Big time.
Just like most good detective stories, this one does wend its way back to a perfectly logical explanation, though a chillingly one you likely won’t see coming unless you read the book. Heading into fall, A Haunting in Venice feels just right, even if it doesn’t break new ground or forever change film. Know what’s cool about scary (or semi-scary) movies? They don’t have to rewrite the game, they just have to be fun. This is that.
+Good fun, gorgeous cinematography
-Wraps up rather suddenly; never enough Yeoh
A Haunting in Venice
Directed by Branagh
With Branagh, Fey, Yeoh, Reilly, Dornan, Cottin, Hill, Allen and Portfoglio
Violet Crown, Regal, PG-13, 103 min.