‘A Haunting in Venice’ is Branagh at his most macabre … with middling success

Sep 17, 2023, 7:00 AM | Updated: 5:15 pm

branagh haunting in venice...

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in 'A Haunting in Venice' (Photo courtesy of promotional materials from 20th Century Studios)

(Photo courtesy of promotional materials from 20th Century Studios)

Kenneth Branagh‘s “A Haunting in Venice” — the third of an ongoing series of films Branagh directs and stars in based on Agatha Christie novels — stands as his strongest effort to bring the iconic character Hercule Poirot to life, even if it comes at the expense of bringing some Halloween scares and thrills a few weeks early.

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Poirot is enjoying retirement in 1940s Venice, Italy, after two previous adventures in Branagh’s hands before he reluctantly attends a séance tethered to his beliefs that he’s unmoved by the idea of spirits and ghosts. There, he becomes wrapped up in the latest murder investigation, this time with the flirtation of the horror genre lingering in corners of the frame.

With all suspects entrapped in a gothic setting by Poirot and the distracting layers of his mustache, he investigates, interviews and uncovers the truth in classic whodunnit fashion.

The movie glistens aesthetically, with boats on Venice’s water-filled causeways piercing the bellows of buildings underneath, including the haunted house that acts as the film’s primary setting. Guests don antiquated ghoulish masks. Flickering candles illuminate the halls. Rain pounds the terraces, looking out onto the sinking city.

But there’s suffocation in Branagh’s storytelling and Haris Zambarloukos‘ cinematography, as viewers will find themselves begging for the camera to broaden its focus and allow onlookers to understand the geometry of the gothic home the cast is exploring. This claustrophobia, through Branagh’s cramped Dutch angles, odd close-ups, and abrupt establishing shots break any flow of momentum.

The filmmaking feels so flimsy at times. It’s as if the audience could unravel the scene by tugging on a loose thread off frame.

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While Branagh’s Poirot is undergoing a multi-episodic arc, the supporting band of characters leaves a lot to be desired. Michelle Yeoh, Hollywood’s reigning winner of the Oscar for best actress, can still bring an infectious energy to the screen despite being handed some tough exposition-riddled passages. But Jamie Dornan — who worked with Branagh previously in arguably his career-best role in “Belfast” — plays a character neutered of any charm and charisma he normally brings. (Those who were fans of “Belfast” will love to see Jude Hill return to the big screen.)

Unlike its modern whodunnit counterpart, “Knives Out” and its 2022 sequel, there’s not a lot of room for the cast to explore the film’s setting, premise or script, or even their own written idiosyncrasies. That’s mainly due to the film taking nearly 40 minutes to properly start, but also because of its stiff nature.

The cast may possess enough star power to draw sizeable crowds. But the watered-down, melodramatic versions of themselves in “A Haunting in Venice” leave a lot to be desired.

Does the film want to be a grim and bleak portrait of post-war Europe, with Poirot more tormented than ever as he tackles his own mortality in the face of grizzly murders? Or does it want to follow the “Knives Out” approach and embrace the silliness that comes with the work of being a private investigator? The half-serious, half-humorous dance “A Haunting in Venice” wants to partake can make the film tonally challenged at times, but it also does leave to some of the script’s more lively moments.

The crux of this tonal dance? Tina Fey.

Yes, Fey took time out of her busy schedule to solve crimes alongside Branagh as the film’s second lead. Her fast-talking, transatlantic accent is as consistent as the film’s tone while she was awarded with some truly tough bouts of exposition — three-dollar steak with a glass of two-buck chuck tough.

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But once the film moves past its elongated opening — and also once the audience is just comfortable enough to buy her as a 1940s pulp writer — there’s a genuine joy in the kindling chemistry between her and Branagh as they scale spiral stairs in the decrepit house.

For those impatient for autumn and the All Hallows Eve ambiance that comes with it, “A Haunting in Venice” will tie those over until October.

Frank’s score: 2/5

Double feature choice: Another whodunnit that takes place in a stylized decade, this time the 1970s, is Shane Black’sThe Nice Guys,” which stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, would be a great companion film to ‘A Haunting in Venice’ for those who want a double dose of murder mysteries of varying styles.

What else is coming out?

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3” In the series’ second sequel and first in seven years, Fotoula (Nia Vardalos) travels to Greece for a family reunion and ends up attempting to locate her deceased father’s childhood friends. Currently in theaters.

“El Conde” — Director Pablo Larraín (“Jackie”, “Spencer”) is back with a new Spanish-language film about Augusto Pinochet, an aged vampire who, after living for 250 years, has decided he’s ready to die once and for all. Currently streaming on Netflix.

“Sitting in Bars with Cake” — Loosely based on the unique story-driven cookbook, “Sitting in Bars With Cake” tells the story of two young women (Yara Shahidi and Odessa A’zion) who have been lifelong friends who came up with the idea to bring a new cake to 50 different bars before a life-altering diagnosis changes everything. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

“Women Talking” — Still not caught up on all the Best Picture nominees of 2022? ‘Women Talking,’ last year’s winner of the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, focuses on the women of an isolated religious community when they are forced to grapple with reconciling a brutal reality with their faith. Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Frances McDormand are part of the cast. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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‘A Haunting in Venice’ is Branagh at his most macabre … with middling success