Venice Italy is a beautiful city, gently floating in place on top of the water and connected solely by bridges. Full of history, art, culture, and religion, the narrow pathways and old architecture hold so much life within its foundations that’s begging to be explored. If you’ve ever been, one of the downsides of being in Venice is the flooding that happens when it pours – the structural integrity of each building loses its footing leading to disaster throughout its many districts. But that’s what makes Venice an ideal destination and setting for a whodunnit – from the shadows and darkness hidden beneath the surface, the beautiful city on the outside becomes cursed.
Modern whodunnits have been comprised of two separate franchises trading blows in their head-to-head bout – the wholly original Knives Out and its sequel by writer-director Rian Johnson and the adventures of Detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) based on the popular Agatha Christie novels and directed by Branagh. One thing the two franchises have in common – their ensemble casts committing to the journey their respective directors take them on. For Branagh’s 3rd attempt, writer Michael Green adapts the Agatha Christie novel Hallowe’en Party and renames it A Haunting in Venice.
Taking place in the historic city, Poirot has retired from his famed detective work. Every day as he leaves his residence, a crowd of people await him, bombarding the ex-detective with cases he should investigate and solve. Only for the desperate people to be stopped by Poirot’s hired bodyguard Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio). After solving the murders on the Orient Express and on the Nile River, Poirot’s life has become a quiet one – that is until friend and mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) pays Poirot a visit and invites him to a Halloween party / séance at the palazzo of opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) to expose the medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) as a fraud.
From my experience in my one trip to Italy during Halloween, the holiday isn’t as culturally significant nor celebrated in Europe as it is in the United States but people in Rome still dressed up and trick-or-treated.
Since A Haunting in Venice is a Poirot murder mystery and to not give away all of the juicy plot details, as in the previous films, a dead body is found within the decorative walls of the palazzo in which Poirot locks all in attendance of the séance in so he can conduct his investigation. Even in retirement, the allure of solving a crime is too good to pass up for Poirot – the man can retire and settle down, but he never stops being a detective. Just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in.
One by one, Poirot and Oliver conduct their investigation of what Poirot considers the death a homicide. Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), Leopold Ferrier (Jude Hill), Nicholas Holland (Ali Khan), and Desdemona Holland (Emma Laird) are interrogated, often offering clues as to who the killer might be, but Green’s script keeps everyone guessing.
Featuring a talented ensemble who each fit into their characters comfortably and the period of post war Italy, the real star of Branagh’s film is the created atmosphere the actor-director establishes within the opening frames. An atmosphere built for the unofficially titled ‘spooky season’ that keeps the tension high and the focus on things that move in the dark. Around every corner could be something waiting to pop out and scare the mustache off the famed detective. Maybe Poirot will become a believer after spending a night in a haunted palazzo. As for the jump scares, there are seldom few of them, but Branagh places them perfectly throughout the modest runtime – keeping you on your toes.
To take it a couple of steps further, to keep the anxiety high, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos usus all of the neat techniques to turn the palazzo into a haunted house spectacle people flock to in the months of September and October – turning the setting into its own trippy character. At certain points, telling up from down will be even more of a challenge than the actual murder mystery. Complimenting the shooting style is a chilling score from Hildur Guðnadóttir (Chernobyl, Joker). Her talent in crafting music that fits the atmosphere, indulging the film in a darker tone that stays consistent throughout.
In his third turn as Hercule Poirot, Branagh gives another sharply stoic lived-in performance. But again for the third time the perfectly manicured mustache steals the spotlight as the vessel for Poirot’s brains and Braun in solving the murders. A Haunting in Venice takes the hard knocks lessons its predecessors went through and applies what its learned to create a whodunnit worthy of the genre. The darker tone, creepy supernatural aesthetic and minimal lighting shine the brightest as Michael Green’s script offers plenty of twists, turns and unpredictable curveballs thrown. Your move Rian Johnson.
Screenplay By: Michael Green
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Music By: Hildur Guðnadóttir
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
Starring: Kyle Allen, Kenneth Branagh, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Kelly Reilly, Riccardo Scamarcio, Michelle Yeoh
Edited By: Lucy Donaldson
Release Date: September 15, 2023
Running Time: 1 Hour 43 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 77%
Based On: Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie