Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Over his 42 year career, Kenneth Branagh has proven to be one of the most fascinating voices in cinema. He is known for his acting just as much as his directing, displaying the same level of passion whether he’s in front of or behind the camera. Branagh is known for his love of Shakespearean drama, but interestingly that has actually made him very unpretentious about the kinds of films he makes. Thus, there are just as many adaptations of sophisticated literature, as there are mainstream blockbusters in his filmography. His affinity for theatricality means he can look at a classical work like Hamlet (1996), and a childish Marvel comic book like Thor (2011), and deliver both with equal levels of enthusiasm. Therefore, the work of Agatha Christie is the perfect sandbox for Branagh to play in, as he has once again done so with A Haunting in Venice (2023).
Following the events of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022), world famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has decided to retire, and is now living a relatively quiet life in Venice. This hasn’t stopped many from trying to engage Poirot’s unique services, including his former associate Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a successful murder mystery author. Oliver convinces Poirot to attend a Halloween party at the palazzo of famed opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). The purpose of this visit is to observe a séance performed by the medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), whom Drake has hired in order to communicate with her deceased daughter Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson). As the palazzo itself is rumoured to be haunted, Oliver intends to prove to Poirot that the paranormal exists, especially after the séance results in a seemingly unexplainable murder.
While not the first filmmaker to tackle Agatha Christie’s series of Hercule Poirot stories, Branagh is certainly making sure that his name is synonymous with the brand. His version of Murder on the Orient Express was a financial hit, despite not being universally praised like previous adaptations. Regardless, he powered ahead with Death on the Nile, an equally mixed bag which still managed to net a tidy profit. Given that track record, one must assume that A Haunting in Venice would achieve a similarly perplexing result. Interestingly, it seems Branagh’s Poirot series has finally found its true sense of purpose, as A Haunting in Venice finally delivers on the franchise’s potential.
The format of a Poirot mystery (or most standard mystery’s for that matter) is to take the detective, drop him in a dynamic location with a cast of colourful characters, have someone drop dead, let the detective investigate everyone, and then reveal the (hopefully) clever solution. The fun part is seeing the layers unfold on all the suspects, endearing us to all their personal goals and perspectives. Simultaneously, this allows us time to figure out the truth amongst a sea of lies, effectively giving us a chance to beat the detective to the punch. The strength of this is measured by how interesting each suspect is, and how obvious the killer is within the bunch. A Haunting in Venice succeeds greatly at the first aspect, as all of the characters are given equal layers of dimension as well as compelling motivations. However, the second aspect is still lacking, as the main suspect is still fairly obvious.
That being said, A Haunting in Venice isn’t derailed by the secret antagonist being too evident, as it’s still an enjoyable ride to the finish line. This is achieved by the hints being well integrated and are mostly logical. Too many modern detective films don’t play fair, making it impossible for the viewer to spot the clues (Branagh’s previous Poirot movies are also guilty of this). We simply just sit there, passively waiting for the detective to tell us the solution, meaning the film hasn’t needed to put any effort into cleverly concealing the truth right under our noses. An effective mystery film should be able to confidently hide the clues in plain sight, knowing that the viewer won’t see them. A Haunting in Venice happily steps up and manages to mostly achieve this goal, as all the clues are smartly underlined. The one thing holding this element back from being perfect is that the conclusions reached by Poirot occasionally feel like wild guesses, as it’s hard to imagine anyone would correctly assume what’s happening based on the proposed puzzle pieces.
Another aspect which helps smooth over the kink’s is the strength of the cast, populated with a mix of heavy hitters and dependable character actors. Both Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile were stacked with A-list actors, but neither felt as though the actors were picked for their suitability for their roles. It seemed as though Branagh was choosing them based on star power alone. Unlike those two earlier efforts, A Haunting in Venice actually has a cast which fits the needs of its characters. With the likes of Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, Kyle Allen, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Riccardo Scamarcio, Emma Laird, Ali Khan and Jude Hill, there’s a nice mix of big names and up and comers. Additionally, Kenneth Branagh himself is pretty comfortable in his role as Poirot, even managing to deliver some character growth for the famously static protagonist.
In addition to Branagh’s committed performance, he manages to infuse A Haunting in Venice with a fun directorial style, which both Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile slightly lacked. Where those previous efforts felt and looked like standard blockbusters, A Haunting in Venice has a cheekily sinister aesthetic, appropriately matching the film’s ‘haunting’ narrative. There’s certainly creepier examples of gothic storytelling, but Branagh clearly has a lot of love for the genre, affectionately borrowing imagery from classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Similarly, Branagh utilises the occasional jump scare, yet he only uses them to build the tension, as opposed to throwing them in just for cheap terror. As a final example of Branagh’s signature, fans of Thor will notice that he once again displays his obsession with Dutch angles, which will hilariously make many viewers wonder if he has a working tripod.
While Kenneth Branagh puts out his more artistically successful films in-between his Poirot adventures, the existence of this series is ultimately very healthy for the state of blockbuster filmmaking. Too many franchise films are only considered successful if they make upwards of $500 million, but there was once a time when a modest hit was still considered a hit. A Haunting in Venice (and the preceding series of films) gives some hope that studios may once again be okay with just having films be judged and enjoyed on their own functional merits. This is no one’s favourite series of films, but every time one of them hits the screen, everyone is perfectly happy to give it a watch. Therefore, we should be totally satisfied with Branagh producing us a Poirot film every few years.
Best way to watch it: When it’s on TV and you’re wanting an easy watch.