In illustrated, news, Review

Original caricature by Jeff York of the cast of A HAUNTING IN VENICE (copyright 2023)

The third time’s the charm for actor/director Kenneth Branagh in delivering a terrific adaptation of Agatha Christie. A HAUNTING IN VENICE is based on the author’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party and his take on the material betters his previous efforts of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) and DEATH ON THE NILE (2022) by a country mile. Each of those Christie adaptations had their attributes, but they also suffered from big mistakes as well. Here, however, Branagh is firing on all cylinders. The script is smart, the cast is uniformly terrific, and he himself seems to finally be having fun in the role of Christie’s famous Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot.

The film’s success is helped enormously by the choice of a lesser-known book for adaptation. Hallowe’en Party is second-tier Christie compared to classic novels like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. Thus, this adaptation has a much shorter hill to climb. Plus, those aforementioned titles yielded superb film versions, in 1974 and 1978, respectively, which themselves became classics. The liberties that Branagh and his screenwriter Michael Green take with this material are actually welcome as they’ve improved Christie’s original story demonstrably by sharpening the focus, trimming excess fat, and adding a horror film flair to the proceedings.

Branagh also seems relieved of not having to live up to the previous notable film performances of Point by Albert Finney in ’74, and Peter Ustinov in ’78. Previously, Branagh seemed to be going for a character somewhere in the middle of those two interpretations. Yet, his amalgam of Finney’s brusqueness and Ustinov’s light fussiness made his Poirot seem wishy-washy, and made the character too unlikable. It didn’t help Branagh either that his overdone mustache was far too distracting. The darn thing was half mutton-chop, half horse brush. It even got its own back story in 2022’s DEATH ON THE NILE, and that was not a good look for the character or the film. Here, the facial hair has been dialed back considerably and everything else has been pared down too.

Gone is the extravagant need to show off landscapes as Branagh did in the first two outings as here, he’s essentially dealing with a single setting. A dilapidated and haunted mansion in Venice is the location and it’s plenty fascinating all on its own. It helps too that all the action takes place in this home in a single, 24-hour period too. Additionally, the cast is concentrated in the same room together most of the time, and that gives this outing a truer ensemble feel. A HAUNTING IN VENICE is tight, taut, and deliberate, with a looser and wittier take on Poirot. It’s also a ghost story and that always adds cinematic benefits to any telling.

The story concerns a séance assembled in Venice to help grieving opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) contact her deceased adult daughter Alicia who mysteriously died a year ago on Halloween. Desperate writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), looking for a good story, invites her retired friend Poirot to accompany her to the event to determine if the medium is legit. That clairvoyant is a haughty woman named Mrs. Reynolds, and as played by Michelle Yeoh, she is one intimidating presence. But is she a faker or the genuine article? That’s the first mystery Poirot must unravel for Ariadne, with promises of many more mysteries to come begging for his intervention throughout the evening.

Amongst those joining the Halloween festivities are Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), a returning WWII vet suffering from PTSD; his egghead of a son Leopold (Jude Hill); Rowena’s devoted aide Olga (Camille Cottin); Reynolds aides Nicholas Holland (Ali Khan) and Desdemona Holland (Emma Laird); and Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), the disgruntled ex-fiancé of the dead Alicia. Even Poirot’s bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) joins the seance so you know that danger will follow. Of course, the séance will reveal all kinds of secrets and provide a number of great, ghoulish moments, not to mention murder and mayhem. Can Poirot figure out what’s really happening vs. what’s an illusion, let alone whodunnit? Does Poirot’s mustache still need more wax than all the candles in the mansion?

One of the pleasures of this go-round is that Branagh gives all the actors plenty of time to shine. That was not the case in the first two where big names like Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Dawn French, and Sophie Okanedo struggled to register with mere minutes of screen time. And while there are eleven major characters in this film, they all are very well-developed. Especially good are Fey who adds humorous acidity to her Mid-Atlantic line readings, and Hill, who is both funny and heartbreaking. Hill’s not just an accomplished child actor, he’s a terrific actor, period. It’s fun to see him reunite with Jamie Dornan too after their terrific teaming in Branagh’s Oscar-winning BELFAST back in 2021.

There are some minor quibbles to be had as Branagh doesn’t quite maximize his hiring of the gifted composer Hildur Guonadottir to render the dramatic score. The music feels more like sound design. And the director still tends to rush some of Poirot’s deductions/explanations. At times I wish I could have rewound the film in the cineplex to catch all that Branagh said in his swift Belgian accent. But make no mistake, this is a very accomplished adaptation of Agatha Christie, one so enjoyable that I hope Branagh does more. He’s on a role so I hope he’ll try another…perhaps Christie’s innovative The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Now, that would be one tough case to crack, but I think this sleuth is up to the job.

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