Cinematic Releases: A Haunting in Venice (2023) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Kenneth Branagh is having something of a career renaissance these past few years, having cranked out both his nostalgia piece Belfast and his second entry in the ongoing adventures of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot Death on the Nile back-to-back while also appearing in two Christopher Nolan projects recently with Tenet and Oppenheimer.  Showing no signs of slowing down, the man of many cinematic talents is back both behind and in front of the camera with ostensibly the third offering in what promises to be an ongoing series of films for the Hercule Poirot murder mystery crime sleuth, the quasi-horror infused Halloween episode A Haunting in Venice.  As with the previous two entries Murder on the Orient Express and Nile, the film is an ensemble whodunit and a wealth and luxury travelogue only this time the proceedings are a lot darker with overtones of the supernatural involved.  As close to Peter Medak’s The Changeling as the world-famous detective has come. 

Based on Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party with the name changed to A Haunting in Venice, Branagh’s third iteration with Hercule Poirot finds the world-famous detective being called out of retirement alongside mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) to attend a Halloween party in the heart of Venice, Italy at a supposedly accursed palazzo.  Initially skeptical, Hercule soon finds himself working a case “bigger than him” when a séance led by medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) triggers a series of unexplained seemingly paranormal events that leaves the detective vexed.  

After a seemingly unknown force tries to drown Poirot and one of the key players ends up dead, in the time-honored tradition of the great Hercule Poirot he locks everyone in the palazzo.  The cast of characters including doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan from Belfast), Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), Leopold Ferrier (Jude Hill) and Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) find themselves trapped with Poirot as he systematically tries to piece together the clues before whatever is residing in the palazzo with them picks everyone else off.

Far moodier, bleaker and more somber than the first two which hinted at elements of darkness that this new one freely dives into, the film is clearly heavily influenced by Robert Wise’s The Haunting which with the use of Dutch angles, Ultra Panavision cameras, low levels of lighting and inclement weather achieves the feel of a haunted house movie.  Trailers sell the picture outright as a horror film with jump scares which the film does have but it is more or less a more dimly lit version of Death on the Nile.  

Showing off the locale as before, the film reunites Branagh with his longtime cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos though this time they’ve moved away from 2.20:1 65mm film photography to 6K digital for IMAX theatrical projection at 1.85:1 roughly.  The result is a kindred, similar but altogether different visual approach to this particular Poirot tale.  The most notable addition to Branagh’s collective of talented artists is Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir fresh off of Chernobyl and her Oscar win for Joker, going for a most moody, subtly ambient and downbeat score that prefers low hum dread to blasting the soundtrack despite Branagh’s own tendency to do just that with occasional jump scares.
The cast, as always, is splendid with Michelle Yeoh fresh off of her Oscar win ushered in as a Chinese medium (or quack depending on the perspective) who has been summoned to contact opera singer Rowena Drake’s deceased daughter Alicia.  Co-starring child actor Jude Hill, the lead actor in Belfast as a precocious young lad devoted to his doctor father Leslie, A Haunting in Venice like the Hercule Poirot entries before it brings together a large ensemble cast for the titular detective to gradually work his way through.  Branagh’s ability with coaxing great performances out of his actors speaks volumes to his still masterful abilities as a director with more than a few scenes of his cast in tears.  Still as with the others it is Branagh himself who has taken center stage by imbuing an otherwise ridiculous caricature with depth and human weight.

Initially a scenic Halloween special for Kenneth Branagh’s riff on Agatha Christie’s world-famous literary detective that grows more insular and somber as Hercule Poirot and crew dive into a supernatural infused case, A Haunting in Venice while entertaining and subtly spooky is unfortunately the weakest entry in the trilogy for its leanings into horror tropes that feel lifted out of other movies.  When it is concentrated on Poirot’s dealings and problem-solving skills it of course works splendidly with the detective questioning anything and everything around him, but when it tries to work in jump scares including but not limited to a creepy dead girl appearing behind Poirot it feels like we’re stepping into another genre completely.  Still, with October right around the corner A Haunting in Venice while lacking the dramatic power of Murder on the Orient Express still gives fans of the whodunit and horror flick something kind of cozy to chew on.  A welcome change of pace for the world famous Belgian detective nevertheless.

--Andrew Kotwicki