A Haunting in Venice continues Kenneth Branagh’s mysterious descent into lazy filmmaking

It feels like you’re a teacher watching a pupil with demonstrated potential fail a test because he assumed he didn’t have to study. He’s getting a C-, with a note to see the teacher after class.
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A Haunting in Venice. // Courtesy 20th Century Studios

If there weren’t already successful examples of Agatha Christie adaptations (and movies made in the spirit of Christie), it might be tempting to give Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot movies some leeway. Murder on the Orient Express was a serviceable, atmospheric whodunit. Death on the Nile was a bloated disaster hampered further by cast members whose reputations had taken a downturn between the film’s production and its release. 

Now we have A Haunting in Venice, which between its richly historic locale, Halloween timing and big ‘ol haunted house setting should be an easy win. However, Branagh still can’t stick the landing, making it fair to ask: if he likes the character of Hercule Poirot and enjoys making these movies…why aren’t they good? A Haunting in Venice lacks the atmosphere and visual flair to properly spook viewers, or the character development to make the ensemble worth investing in.

In Post-World War II Venice, Branagh’s Poirot lives in retirement, growing vegetables and assiduously avoiding the people who line up at his door with cases. He breaks his new vow for old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a mystery writer. Ariadne wants to base her next book on uncanny psychic Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who’s performing a séance at the home of former opera diva Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), on Halloween night. Ariadne insists Poirot help her determine if Mrs. Reynolds is the real deal.

The moldering Drake palazzo was once an orphanage, where it’s said nurses and doctors walled the kids inside during the plague and left them to die. That alone would make it a solid spot for communing with the dead, but Rowena wants to contact her daughter Alicia, who died following a broken engagement. Of course, the séance ends up being the catalyst for homicidal hijinks that Poirot must solve. Is a ghost responsible? Or is it *thunderclap* MURDER?!

To understand what A Haunting in Venice misses, it’s worth considering what others, including Christie acolyte Rian Johnson have gotten right.

Where Poirot is the main character of the Branagh films, Johnson’s Benoit Blanc functions more as connective tissue in Knives Out and Glass Onion, with his powers of detection and odd quirks bringing out telling personality traits in the stories’ suspects, which in turn highlight the movies’ social commentary. The gold-standard David Suchet-starring BBC Poirot series also knew this, only moving Poirot to the forefront in stories that thoroughly perplexed and disturbed him (see the unsettling ABC Murders episode), and therefore the audience.

There’s almost no scene in Death in Venice in which Poirot doesn’t feature, giving us little time to get to know the other characters on their own terms. That’s a problem, because some of them, like PTSD-stricken doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his Poe-obsessed son Leo (Jude Hill) have a lot of baggage to unpack. Alicia’s former fiance Maxime (Kyle Allen) appears so seldomly that he seemingly only exists to be a red herring. It’s like Poirot is the only playable character in a house full of NPCs, which is fine if you’re solving a mystery on an Xbox. It’s less interesting if you’re watching a movie, which requires dynamic characters and dramatic interactions.

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A Haunting in Venice. // Courtesy 20th Century Studios

Rather than amending this, or crafting an effectively eerie air (this should be absurdly easy to do in a giant old house), Branagh and his collaborators try to keep the audience on their toes with lazy filmmaking tricks like jump scares, a tactic he bafflingly used a couple of times in Death on the Nile and pulls out roughly every 10 minutes in A Haunting in Venice. It’s as if his only understanding of genre filmmaking is “throw stuff in the audience’s face.” 

Again, this is surprising and disappointing coming from a filmmaker who in his early years proved a talented hand at both dramatic tension and arresting visuals, to consistent upward success. Branagh absolutely can do this stuff, he’s just choosing to take the easiest path.

All this makes watching A Haunting in Venice feel like you’re a teacher watching a pupil with demonstrated potential fail a test because he assumed he didn’t have to study. He’s getting a C-, with a note to see the teacher after class.


Categories: Movies