The third of his series featuring Agatha Christie’s legendary detective is off-the-bat a tone changer compared to Orient Express and Death On The Nile. Immediately, it had me intrigued because Kenneth Branagh’s choice to adapt Christie’s Hallowe’en Party instead of another previously adapted book (Evil Under The Sun was the original sequel to Nile under Peter Ustinov). Instead, Branagh tackles psychological ghost story. What you get is the best of the three Poirot stories by Branagh as it is the more personal to the Belgian detective. It is 1947 in Venice and Poirot has retired from the job having seen too much death around him following the Second World War.
Then, he gets a surprise visitor in Ariadne Oliver (Tiny Fey), a mystery novelist and friend of Poirot who invites him to a seance in order to expose a fraudulent medium named Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). It’s in an aging home where a Halloween party for orphans occurs under Rowena Drake’s (Kelly Reilly) eye. Tragedy has recently befallen her with the death of her daughter one year earlier; it was ruled a suicide but Rowena insists she was possessed and forced to leap to her death. Joining the seance are Reynolds’ two assistants (Ali Khan and Emma Laird), the doctor (Jamie Dornan) who has PTSD from the war and tried to care for Rowena’s daughter plus his son (Jude Hill, reunited father and son from Branagh’s Belfast), the help (Olga Seminoff), and Max (Kyle Allen), the ex-fiancee of Rowena’s daughter.
Among the first things noticed is Harris Zambarloukos’ cinematography which shows how tight the rooms are with unique angles without showing it to be claustrophobic. There is always a sense of imbalance with every room discovered at every moment during the night. The production design is top notch, and the sound design keeps the eeriness around with every beat. Even as the story gets bogged down in its whodunit phase following the murder – our victim isn’t strangled, shot, or poisoned, but is impaled by the hands of a sculpture – the heightened sense of fear is picked up by the supernatural elements that hang the case in the balance.
I have a bone to pick with Branagh’s direction. He seems to mix in Carol Reed’s style from The Third Man (a must-see classic) with its Dutch angles and expressionist look with modernistic camera movement. It lacks consistency, and it would have been better just to keep it in a vintage approach, considering the era and type of story.
However, his performance of Poirot gives a much stronger understanding of the man as someone who has no belief and sees through the trickery but is challenged by these forces beyond logic. It makes Poirot more human and less resolute. Fey fulfills the comic relief as Poirot’s would-be helper in solving the murder, gleefully excited because it will be the basis for her next novel. Throughout, Fey does not drift into her 30 Rock or SNL personas, a welcomed surprise.
The Poirot films directed by Branagh have been mixed. Orient Express felt too glossy and lacked the suspense while The Nile was a little campy for its intent. The change in direction with source material less known to people makes A Haunting In Venice a much stronger film for Branagh in the Agatha Christie category. It is not a horror story, but it is potent in the terrors of ghosts to hold fast the attention of those who also are not believers of Branagh’s management of a legendary character in an advanced stage of his life.