By Ben Konuch
“For once in your life, admit you are up against something bigger than you!”
I’ve been a fan of mysteries for as long as I can remember, as I previously reminisced when I had the opportunity to review Kenneth Branagh’s “Death on the Nile” last year. Mystery stories have taken up much of my childhood, so I’m always disappointed that Hollywood doesn’t have the same quantity of classic whodunits as books and television shows.
That’s why Kenneth Branagh’s recent reimaginings of Agatha Christie’s most iconic detective have been such a breath of fresh air. Brannagh has brought Hercule Poirot back into the public eye with new takes on “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile,” and has most recently applied what he’s learned from those first two films into another adaptation of one of Christie’s lesser-known novels. This newest adaptation comes with a slight genre shift into a horror-mystery hybrid that demonstrates both his commitment to Agatha Christie’s mysteries and his undeniable talent as a filmmaker.
“A Haunting in Venice” was directed by Kenneth Branagh and features him once again as the film’s famous detective Hercule Poirot alongside an all-star cast including Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey and Jamie Dornan. It serves as a loose adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party,” and Brannagh plays loose with the novel’s events in order to shift the setting and tone to a horror-shrouded Venice. While longtime fans of Christie’s mysteries may be skeptical of the more open changes Brannagh enacts compared to the previous two, the filmmaker demonstrates a clear love for the source material and a fundamental understanding of not just the character of Hercule Poirot, but the workings of an Agatha Christie mystery. Yes, the film and the novel are very different mysteries and experiences, but Brannagh brings elements of Christie into every change and aspect of “A Haunting in Venice” to create a new story, but one that I believe the Queen of Crime herself would approve of.
The film follows Hercule Poirot, the world-renowned detective, on retirement in Venice following the devastating events shown in “Death on the Nile.” Poirot is content to peacefully live out the rest of his years in his eccentric ways, but when an old friend resurfaces in his life, she brings him an offer that he cannot refuse. This time it’s not an outright case, but a proposition; his friend is writing a book on a famous medium hired by a woman for a seance to reach her deceased daughter, and Poirot is invited to spot the con. What seems like a simple favor for a friend turns into a night of horror, unexplained events and a grisly murder. Whether or not Poirot believes in the dark events surrounding him, he knows that a crime has been committed and that he has a duty to unearth the killer.
Kenneth Branagh is once again electric as Poirot, with the film continuing the subtle yet deliberate development of his character. Eccentric as always, this Poirot is far less hardened and haughty to those around him. After the loss of a close friend in the previous film, he is haunted by his own ghosts of the past.
Perhaps just as commendable as Poirot’s three film character arc is the fact that every supporting character here, no matter how small, has their own individual character arc as well. Each character is haunted by their own personal demons, and each character has a chance to exorcize them throughout this nightmarish night. Perhaps the twists may be predictable or the characters have less time to shine due to the inclusion of the horror elements, but all these pieces work together to create an exciting and mesmerizing story that’s unique in the backdrop of all of Agatha Christie’s film adaptations.
While the story and central mystery here ultimately stand on the same level as Brannagh’s previous adaptations, what shines the most in this film is the spectacle of something new. Riding the line between mystery and horror gives “A Haunting in Venice” not just a unique thematic identity, but a captivating visual one as well that couldn’t be farther from the wide, panning shots of “Death on the Nile.” Brannagh utilizes filming techniques that highlight the environments and the claustrophobia of being locked in an old house with potential ghosts and a very real killer. Examples of this include crooked camera framing to cause unease, tracking shots on an actor’s closeup as they frantically move through a corridor to convey sanity slipping away, and perhaps my favorite moment in the film, a POV sequence where the camera shifts between each suspect delivering frantic alibis as if the camera is the harsh gaze of Poirot himself.
The unique visual and tonal identity elevates a less complex mystery into a unique kind of whodunit thriller that never relents in its thrills or entertainment. Serving as both a compelling mystery and a tame gateway horror film, Brannagh has demonstrated masterclass filmmaking as well as an admirable love for Agatha Christie in a triumphant demonstration of how these classic mysteries can still captivate modern audiences for years to come. If we get any more of these Hercule Poirot mysteries in the next few years, you can guarantee I’ll be in a front-row seat to whatever else Kenneth Branagh can bring to the table.
I give “A Haunting in Venice” a 7.5/10
“A Haunting in Venice” is now showing in theaters
Ben Konuch is a junior Strategic Communication student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and hanging out with crazy MuKappa friends.
Images courtesy of 20th Century Studios.