Kenneth Branagh‘s (Death on the Nile) adaptations of Agatha Christie’s famed Belgian detective get closer and closer to the real intent of the man (and his creator) the further they stray from the original lock step cause and effect of the original creations. Moody and paranoid, A Haunting in Venice pays superficial homage to a late Christie piece (some character names are the same, that’s about it) in order to produce an almost original creation focused more on the detective and less on his work.
There is a murder and there is a mystery, but the haunting is of Branagh’s Poirot who feels the strain of facing evil on his soul and the need to avoid it. It’s a pivot the director-star has been inching towards since his first turn in Murder on the Orient Express and one that he finally finishes in his third try as Poirot turns his inquisitive lens on himself and recoils from what he sees.
None of that means there may not be an actual haunting, also; specifically of an aging Venetian mansion that has long been the home of famed opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). Recently cloistered after a family tragedy, Drake has decided to open the house up for a Halloween séance at the hands of the famed medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to reach her deceased daughter.
When Reynolds warns of the potential impact of other spirits who had lived and died at the house over the years Poirot and fellow mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) turn their noses up at the idea… until Reynolds herself turns up dead despite everyone in the house having an alibi. Now Poirot, at lowest ebb, must figure out which is worse — being locked up with a murderer or being locked up with a ghost.
Branagh is not the first to realize the connection between ghost stories and mystery stories, each filled with oppressive atmosphere, paranoia and a creeping feeling of inevitable doom. But applying it to a famous, many times filmed detective, not only separates this adaption from the many others that have come before but distills a purer version of the man.
Undergoing a crisis of faith in mankind that has led to his retirement from sleuthing, Branagh’s Poirot has departed from the narcissistic man who spent a lot of time caring for his mustache and complaining about his eggs, now wearing those elements are a mask to protect against his own inner turmoil.
Branagh has been gradually tearing away at the surface level description of Poirot, the caricature he tended to stay as in his various books, to find the man inside and why he does what he does. In Venice he has arrived and no one likes the result, least of all himself.
The internal destruction is matched by the gradually-collapsing mansion he must spend the night in (itself isolated within the equally gradually collapsing city of Venice), itself filled with equally damaged and corrupt people.
Working against time and the hope of a dawn when police might finally be able to arrive on the scene, Venice is the visual and internalized bottom for Poirot and the mystery he must solve is not one of murder but whether he cares enough to try solving it.
There are shifts and swerves enough to satisfy the genre fan but the internal direction is straight as an arrow, and if the destination is never in doubt that doesn’t distract from the journey.
In the same way Branagh pushed Shakespeare into the muck and mire when he made Henry V, he ruthlessly tears down Poirot and the archetypal gentleman detective, looking for the man underneath. Filled with gloomy vibes and a post-war distrust of mankind, A Haunting in Venice is the best version of this extended experiment Branagh has been engaged in since Murder on the Orient Express.
Simultaneously the least and most faithful version of the detective put on the screen, this is the Poirot movie we’ve been waiting for.
A HAUNTING IN VENICE REVIEW SCORE: 7.5 OUT OF 10
A Haunting in Venice is now playing in theaters. The 20th Century Studios release is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements.