Orson Welles. Tony Randall. Peter Ustinov. Alfred Molina. Ian Holm. John Malkovich. These are just a few of the thirty-odd gentlemen who have appeared as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot over the decades. And let’s not forget Sir David Suchet, who did it better and longer than anyone for almost 25 years. Christie wrote Poirot stories from 1920 to 1975 and the character has been adaptation gold for actors and directors.
Kenneth Branagh took on the subject as both an actor and a director back in 2017 with “Murder on the Orient Express.” “Death on the Nile” came next last year, and we are with Detective Poirot once again in “A Haunting in Venice”, out in theaters now. Even at the briefest glance, it is obvious the third installment of Branagh’s Poirot obsession has all the elements he’s taught us to expect. The cast is all-star. The period scenery is exquisite. The costumes, decadent. Branagh has been directing since he was a teenager, but his mature work has established him as one of Hollywood’s most thoughtful visual stylists.
That’s actually the best place to start a discussion of “A Haunting in Venice”, with how it looks. Since this story is not only a murder mystery but also a supernatural thriller, Branagh ratchets up the creepiness by carefully composing every shot, every frame really. The over-obvious construction of each moment would be far too precious in another project, but in this context, it helps make the Italian palazzo setting feel sentient, like it’s the eyes of the house itself we are looking through. With the exception of jump scares, which he absolutely should have been talked out of, Branagh doesn’t abuse the horror tropes he’s playing with. Like all his best work, there is real discipline here. Not just craft.
The story is based on Agatha Christie’s 1969 “Hallowe’en Party”. The book is twisty and complicated in ways the script of “Haunting” avoids, choosing instead to lean into ghosts and candles over knives and magnifying glasses. This is the first flaw of the film. From the start, the vibe, as cool as it is, threatens to overtake the plot and that imbalance persists right through to the end. Everything is perfect until the payoff, which is the least rewarding of Branagh’s three movie conclusions. As viewers, we have been conditioned by a lifetime of Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and Knives Out experiences to pay very close attention to the breadcrumbs. This is why the reveal has to be so good. We need smart puzzles we can almost solve ourselves, puzzles that delight us with how close and far we are from the truth at the same time. “A Haunting in Venice” gives itself away too soon, and too easily.
Hercule Poirot is operating in a crowded space within the detective mystery genre. As a legacy brand, he gets respect, but others are doing this kind of thing better at the moment. I mentioned Knives Out earlier. There have only been two of those pictures so far, but Rian Johnson has found a way to take the same template Branagh is working with and elevate it with humor and intellectual impertinence. I don’t want to see Branagh copy Johnson, but I do hope his next Poirot case is more than gorgeous to behold. I want it to be fresh again like “Orient Express”, or emotionally wise like “Death on the Nile.” “A Haunting in Venice” is, sadly, the weakest of the three.
And now, in a surprise ending of my own, I am going to convince you to see this film anyway. Kenneth Branagh clearly loves this character, and I don’t believe his infectious journey with Poirot is over. We should all stay on it with him. Take a date and watch “A Haunting in Venice” for the performances, which are excellent, and for the shot-making, which is stunning. Then let’s get excited about where Branagh takes us next.