After “slow-mo Poirot” on a loco(motive) and “oh no, Poirot” drifting down the Nile, the third time isn’t so much “the charm” for director/star Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie series as it is at least “so-so Poirot.” A Haunting in Venice retains the “Marvel Cinematic Universe for Masterpiece Theater Fans” franchise’s love of goofy-ass performances and odd camera angles. The addition of a horror atmosphere somehow excuses the silliness, as though introducing preposterous possible supernatural elements also explains whatever Tina Fey is doing with her voice.
A Haunting in Venice picks up with Poirot retired from solving crimes. We know he’s unhappy because he frowns when choosing his morning eggs. He has no friends, supposedly because his ego and depression keep folks at bay, but it’s most likely the mustache. Ariadne Oliver (Fey), a writer who made Poirot famous by modeling a detective in her beloved books after him, shows up with a new mystery. She whisks him to a Halloween party in a building where orphans were locked in to die during the plague years. Maybe good public health policy has always been a challenge?
Poriot gets sucked into a séance for the dead kid of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), a famous opera singer who, again, voluntarily chose to live in a former orphanage just absolutely filled to the brim with ghost children. A medium (Michelle Yeoh) performs a silly ceremony and alleges Rowena’s kid was actually murdered. Then another dead body is dropped, and Poirot must determine whodunit and whether the “it” that was dun was done by an undead It.
A Haunting in Venice flirts with outright horror but is wearing a purity ring: It’s never going to go “all the way” into spookyville. The central hero is a practical, note-taking contrarian, so the odds of the answer being “the devil did it” are nil. The Christie mystery itself is meh, but the atmosphere adds up to something more fun than Branagh’s previous installments. It’s never dull or self-serious, as though the director actually listened to prior complaints. He didn’t, but it feels like he could have, and that’s what’s empowering.
The supporting cast performs a symphony of soap opera overacting but in a way that feels more purposeful this time. Whether or not it is a good idea to use over-the-top, ham-fisted melodrama, at least it was clearly a choice and not an accident. “Owning” cheeseball delivery is better than falling face first into what Gal Gadot did in the Amazon last time. Although the film sports very few outright jokes, the goofiness is also a bit more clearly intentional.
The end result is something that will make most folks just ever-more-anxiously await the next Knives Out mystery. Still, there’s a reason why the stuffy Poirot has survived all these decades, reincarnating over and over again without so much as a time-traveling police phone box. The appeal is more palpable here. The slightly creepy surroundings are more fun. The mustache remains unchanged.
Grade = B
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Gayle Sequeira at Film Companion says “More than three decades into his career as a director, Branagh has crafted a masterful horror film.”
Beth Accomando at KPBS says this “is not a badly made film. The cast is more than capable, the Venice locale is gorgeous, and the film is attractively shot in its appropriately creepy mansion. But it lacks a certain, je ne sais quoi.”
Justin Chang at the LA Times says “For all the creakily derivative supernatural hokum on display, the ghosts that haunt this movie turn out to be all too persuasively real.”