A HAUNTING IN VENICE. I am both an Agatha Christie fan and philistine, coming to her stories second hand, via my mother's avid reading and BBC productions. Drinking tea with jam and toast beside my mother on the sofa as we watched, Belgian dandy Hercule Poirot became and remains my favorite of Christie's detectives. Christie famously detested him but dutifully ground out books for a delighted public. One can see why he grates: arrogance, pettiness, OCD that manifests with a sense of superiority, occasional lecturing, a then-unmanly preoccupation with cuisine and, in a fat-phobic world, a stout figure he dresses in fussy style. Add to that the sins of being a foreigner and always, eventually, right.
Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney are among the actors who've taken up the iconic role, but, like a baby duck, I imprinted on David Suchet's portrayal, his vanity and humor (mostly the former yielding the latter) balancing Poirot's occasional darkness. His was an indelible 24-year run and I knew going into each of the three adaptations directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh — Murder on the Orient Express (2017), Death on the Nile (2022) and now A Haunting in Venice — it would not be unseated.
That doesn't mean they are without value, given their pricey ensemble casts, far-flung locations, gorgeous costuming and twisty plots. All these elements are at work here, along with breathtaking shots of Venice, seasonally appropriate horror-movie flourishes and intriguing camerawork. But while there's fun to be had puzzling at the mystery and startling at the spookiness, the detective at the center of this loose adaptation of The Hallowe'en Party isn't enough to anchor it.
Following World War II, a disillusioned Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is no longer solving cases or even taking meetings in his Venice hideaway, his would-be clients rebuffed by a brooding Italian bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) who tosses desperate supplicants from canal bridges without losing his stride. But a visit from old friend and authoress Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) draws him back into intrigue to help her debunk a supposed medium (Michelle Yeoh) at a séance that evening. The plan is to wrap up a Halloween party for local orphans in the crumbling and supposedly haunted palazzo of famed opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), then head upstairs to the former bedroom of her late daughter to contact her spirit. There, an angsty party of family, employees and thwarted lovers gather amid a massive storm that sends gondolas crashing. But ghostly accusations of murder followed by the real thing lead to Poirot locking the gates and pledging to solve crimes past and present before the police are set to arrive in the morning.
Those familiar with the source material will be either affronted with the liberties Branagh has taken or happy they don't already know whodunnit, changed as the setting and players are. The haunted house subplot is as good an excuse as any to genre hop and take on some dizzying camera angles. Besides, nobody was ever any worse for spending two hours in the Floating City amid its beautiful, doomed architecture.
The cast is a pleasure to watch, too, particularly the women. Yeoh is clearly having a blast and Fey as an American version of Oliver delivers vintage screwball fast talk, though she falters in heavier scenes. Reilly plays to type with old Hollywood glamour and Camille Cotton hits all the genre beats as the superstitious household staff — a necessity for any haunted mansion.
Branagh's Poirot, however, loses something in the reshuffling. In this incarnation, he's more war veteran than former policeman, and while Branagh maintains his need for symmetrical eggs and fancy pastry, he seems unwilling to be the odd, sexless little man Christie describes and whom suspects underestimate at their peril. Instead, he's fighting trim with butched-up facial hair; mon dieu, he even runs. Here, he is merely meticulous, not ridiculous, teased by his friend but never laughed at or dismissed. He's a genius with eccentricities, but no real flaws beyond haunting memories and his decision to retreat from the world.
Listen, I know a couple things for sure, one of them being that Hercule Poirot would sooner pluck his mustache than dunk his face in a water basin, open mouth gnashing, to bob for an apple after a crowd of children has already had their turns. The plot device of Poirot's vanished Catholic faith, as he declares there is no God, no soul and no afterlife, feels too easy as well. But Branagh's gonna Branagh. I only wonder at his taking on such a singular character to strip him of his foibles and flatten him. Surely there are easier opportunities to play more dashing figures. A mystery. PG13. 104M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.
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