A Haunting in Venice: An underwhelming Venetian mystery
  • Release Date: 15/09/2023
  • Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Dornan
  • Director: Kenneth Branagh         

Kenneth Branagh’s third Hercule Poirot mystery is called ‘A Haunting in Venice‘ and can barely be associated with Agatha Christie’s ‘Hallowe’en Party’. Most of the names of the characters remain the same, and the primary antagonist of the story is the same in the film. However, the story, the motivations of the characters, the causality of their actions, and how Poirot arrives at the killer are changed to such a degree that the film becomes its own story altogether. Even the setting of the story is changed from England to Venice. Thus, it would be prudent to review this film as a standalone story rather than comparing it with Christie’s original work or even the episode in the Poirot TV series starring David Suchet.

The film starts with some breath-taking shots of Venice, captured with flair and attention to detail. These scenes make up for the lack of outdoor settings throughout the rest of the film, where the story primarily unfolds within a specific palazzo. The next time we see the outdoors of Venice is at the end of the film, and by then, we are so claustrophobic and yearning for some fresh air that the gorgeous locales and the resplendent yet soft sun shining on the screen prove to be a beautiful sight to behold, regardless of anything else the visuals have to offer in terms of its cinematic storytelling.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that one of the most impressive aspects of this film is its cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos, the man who also shot two of Kenneth Branagh’s previous Hercule Poirot films. He understands the mood of the story and captures it proficiently. There are scenes without any background music or atmospheric sounds that still leave a lasting impression and can be enjoyed without any other sensory devices.

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has retired from detective work and is leading a quiet and distant life in Venice. However, he is tormented by nightmares that remind him of his sinister past and the unthinkable horrors he has witnessed humans commit. He is soon invited to a séance in Venice by his friend and author, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), with the aim of proving that the Psychic Medium, Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), is a fake. Poirot can’t resist the opportunity to demonstrate that his ‘grey cells’ still function and that séances and psychic mediums are far from genuine. Things take a bizarre turn when Mrs. Reynolds is murdered shortly after conducting a séance, leaving Poirot with some genuine unanswered questions. He begins to hear voices and experiences inexplicable phenomena. What happens next forms the core of the film’s plot.

Kenneth Branagh once again delivers a fantastic performance that truly shines. He is, without a doubt, the standout element in his Hercule Poirot films. His portrayal of the character is not only charming but also a departure from the character as depicted in the books and stories. Yet, somehow, he manages to present Poirot in a way that allows us to glimpse traces of the beloved character from the source material while offering a modern interpretation that blends seamlessly into a captivating and entertaining mix.

Branagh’s character arc in the film is remarkable. He begins as someone reserved and somewhat confused, and this only intensifies as the story progresses. Ultimately, in the film’s climactic conclusion, he comes into his own and unveils the identity of the killer. Branagh clearly understands that he is the film’s main selling point, and he wisely invests enough time in building a connection with the audience, diverting attention from some of the film’s other shortcomings.

One of the many flaws of the film is its story. The mystery at its core simply lacks the intrigue and engagement necessary for the audience to eagerly anticipate the final reveal of the killer’s identity. While there are multiple murders in the film, they fail to deliver significant surprises or involve characters we deeply care about. Consequently, the impact of the drama and the thrills are significantly diminished. Adding to these issues, the film lacks sufficient twists and turns, and the motivations behind the killer’s actions ultimately prove to be a major disappointment in the end.

The film was marketed as a horror/mystery, and therefore, it was expected to incorporate elements of horror to avoid leaving the audience feeling betrayed. Regrettably, the horror elements in the film turn out to be its weakest aspect and serve little purpose. While there are numerous jump scares, they are often predictable and ultimately lead to nothing substantial. The film attempts to distract the audience with these horror elements and even a scene in the finale that raises questions about whether everything Poirot witnessed during the course of the film was real or mere figments of his imagination. Unfortunately, this aspect of the film falls flat, lacking the conviction in its direction that would make these sequences deserving of our attention and intrigue.

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Thankfully, the screenplay remains brisk, and the film is over quicker than you might expect. This, combined with Branagh’s performance, prevents the film from dragging and drawing too much attention to its many flaws. I don’t understand why Branagh couldn’t have adapted the original story, as he did with the previous two films. ‘Hallowe’en Party’ was easily one of the most unconventional and peculiar Poirot mysteries and could have transitioned effectively as a standalone film. This was proven by the 80-minute-long episode of the same story in the ‘Poirot’ TV series.

That being said, this is still a very watchable film. Its mesmerizing cinematography and skilful editing elevate it above its shortcomings to a certain extent. It is, however, the weakest of the three Kenneth Branagh Hercule Poirot films and might even be considered the weakest Poirot film of all time. What’s surprising is that even in such a lacklustre attempt at a Poirot story, it remains interesting and worthy of the big-screen treatment. Perhaps it’s the enduring appeal of the character or the inspiration drawn from the original story that casts its spell. You can only enjoy ‘A Haunting in Venice’ if you set your expectations low when it comes to the aspects of horror and mystery.

Rating: 2.5/5 (2.5 out of 5 Stars)

The views expressed in this article are that of the reviewer and do not reflect EastMojo’s position.

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