It seemed that after the critically and commercially lukewarm Death on the Nile, the case closed on Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot franchise. However, the famed star and director has reinvigorated the series with the fresh and smart A Haunting in Venice. Boasting a new cast, new locale, and a looser adaptation of Agatha Christie’s source material, Branagh delivers a film that is both scary and scary good.
Hercule Poirot has retired. Years of investigating the worst of human nature have taken a toll on the detective. He has taken to isolating himself in Venice, refusing all offers of a new case. When an old friend (Tina Fey) arrives with the offer to disprove a séance, Poirot is drawn into a mystery that challenges his own beliefs. The séance, ordered by grieving mother Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) and run by Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), goes awry and when one of the guests is murdered, Poirot must make peace with his own ghosts in order to uncover the killer.
Branagh again directs the film scribed by Michael Green. The duo have collaborated on both other entries in the franchise, and their familiarity allows them to pick the pieces that have worked and reexamine those that have not. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, but this third installment feels fresh and exciting throughout. The location sets it apart. Whereas the prior films relied on the locked doors of a moving vessel, here a haunted house in storm-sieged Venice provides the locale. The setting gives the film an eerie, atmospheric feel that Branagh leans into to maximize the feeling of the supernatural. This is every bit a haunted house story as it is a mystery.
The single setting also eliminates the need for the gratuitous CGI that plagued the previous films. The practical sets add a feeling of claustrophobia and heighten the unease throughout the film. This both heightens the suspense and makes the scares more natural. And make no mistake, the film packs in the scares. The volume of jump scares is only matched by the volume of Poirot’s infamous ‘stache.
One of the strongest aspects of this series remains the revolving ensemble cast. Branagh’s Poirot is the only constant in a sea of fresh-faced talent. Of the newcomers, Yeoh and Fey are the true standouts, but young Jude Hill holds his own amongst the veteran stars. Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Riccardo Scamarcio, and Dylan Corbett Bader fill in the rest of the internationally diverse cast. The entire ensemble brings their A-game here, another step up from the previous film.
Another departure from the other films, Green only loosely used Christie’s story “Hallowe’en Party” as inspiration for the script. The liberties taken allow Poirot to experience a greater personal arch and also help dial up the suspense. Since many of the characters debut exclusively in the film, the culprit remains a mystery to the audience. The compelling story grabs the audience from the beginning and doesn’t let go through all the twists and turns.
A Haunting in Venice serves as the strongest installment in Branagh’s Poirot series and regains the franchise’s footing after the misstep of Death on the Nile. Bolstered by a strong supporting cast, Branagh, Fey, and Yeoh give standout performances. The script by Green brims with suspense and twists that keep the audience engaged through the relatively tight runtime. The gothic setting and hints at the supernatural make the film a frightfully good time.