A Haunting in Venice
Another delightful murder-mystery from Agatha Christie and Kenneth Branagh's Hercule Poirot, this time taking a turn into the macabre as a seance becomes slaughterhouse.
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“A Haunting in Venice” marks Kenneth Branagh’s third turn as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in a film adaptation of an Agatha Christie work that he also directed. It’s old hat to him now, and to us, familiar with his incessant needling sort of investigation, invariably sifting through a haystack of confusing clues to pinpoint the needle and discover the murderer.
There’s always one… sometimes more than.
“A Haunting in Venice” is another delightful murder-mystery, even as we know where things will end up. In this case, things take a turn toward the macabre as Poirot is invited to an elaborate seance to commune with the dead, his presence demanded to reveal the medium as a fraud.
But then a murder takes place… of course! Poirot and the other guests are locked into the mansion, er, palazzo, as he interrogates each suspect and reveals their blackest secrets. More bodies pile up, until the mystery is solved before dawn.
Tina Fey turns up as an Agatha Christie stand-in, Ariadne Oliver, a mystery novelist and old friend who based her most famous character upon Poirot. After 30 successful novels the last three have been critical and commercial duds, and she recruits Poirot to the seance because she thinks he can unlock the puzzle and provide fodder for her next book.
Poirot insists he is now retired in Venice circa 1947, stubbornly refusing all entreaties for new cases. He even has Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio), a retired Italian police detective, working as his bodyguard to keep the hoi polloi at bay.
Michelle Yeoh plays the medium, Mrs. Richards, who seems very sure of herself and takes great delight in taunting Poirot that he won’t be able to uncover her fraudulent ways, because she’s the real deal. Certainly her seance seems authentic, complete with little-girl voices, windows flying open, spinning in circles and other episodes that even the Belgian sleuth is initially challenged to contest.
The events take place on Halloween in a Venician palazzo that is supposed to be haunted after orphaned children were locked in there to die long ago. The current owner, opera soprano Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), is still in mourning over the death of her teen daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), a year earlier, an apparent suicide after she threw herself from the third floor. She harbors her suspicions and hopes the seance will reveal the truth of her death.
The cast is filled out with various other figures who all become suspects. First one, then another, seems the most likely culprit. Seemingly everyone has some kind of dastardly deeds in their past.
They include Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), who attended to Rowena’s daughter before he died and suffers from PTSD from the war. He also has a son, Leopold (Jude Hill), who’s very bookish and creepy. Olga (Camille Cottin), the family servant, is the most ardent believer that the ghosts haunting the house are real. Alicia’s former fiance (Dylan Corbett-Bader), an arrogant chef, is the unexpected guest who rubs everybody the wrong way and sows conflict. Mrs. Richards has a pair of sibling assistants (Ali Khan and Emma Laird) with a war-torn background.
Of course, Poirot does not dismiss his allies, Ariadne and Vitale, from all suspicion, since his power — and his curse — is applying his methodical intellect to pierce all hidden truths, even ones he’d rather not know.
The storytelling is fast-paced and gripping, pausing here and there for some reflections on Poirot’s own haunted past. He even sees visions of the dead girl, hears mournful singing in some dim corner of the palazzo and other things his doubting mind cannot explain. Is it possible the supernatural is truly behind these deaths?
“A Haunting in Venice” is a moody and entertaining flick, a showcase for Branagh as both director and star. He really seems to enjoy embodying this character, fussy and self-aware, a man who cannot escape himself no matter where the latest case takes him.
There’s no mystery about how things will finish, but there are plenty of surprises and sumptuous interludes along the way.