So we’re really committing to this cinematic Poirotverse, huh? OK.
The Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is arguably Agatha Christie’s finest creation, next to her own persona of Agatha Christie, Queen of the Whodunit. He’s been played by everybody from Tony Randall to John Malkovich; Peter Ustinov portrayed the deductive sleuth six times, and David Suchet has made a career out of gifting TV viewers with the definitive take on Christie’s murder-mystery icon. He’s graced 33 novels and 51 short stories, which means that Kenneth Branagh — the actor-filmmaker who’s directing a series of movies starring himself as the master detective — has no end of potential Poirot potboilers to peruse and put forth onscreen.
Having already tackled two big Poirot tales — Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022) — the question was: which Christie mystery might he do next? The obvious choice would have been something like Evil Under the Sun or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; instead, Branagh and his co-writer Michael Green chose a slightly deeper cut in the back catalog, a 1969 book called Hallowe’en Party that finds Poirot investigating the death of a young girl at a costume party. The title was then changed to A Haunting in Venice, and relocated from England to the far more cinematic city of endless canals. But why stop there? They also changed the instigating murder, added a seance, introduced a whole new cast of characters, upped the horror aspect by roughly 300 percent, and came up with something that is more or less nothing like the source material. It’s practically a new Christie story. We, um, applaud the ambition.
The Halloween factor is still there, as is Branagh’s singularly peculiar Poirot, his franchise co-star of a multilayered mustache, and Ariadne Oliver, another regular Christie character who accompanies Poirot on his outings. She’s a popular mystery novelist, and you don’t need to use all of your little grey cells to guess who she’s based on. (Meet Agatha Christie, autofiction pioneer!) As played by Tina Fey, she walks and talks like she’s just stepped out of a screwball comedy already in progress. The SNL/30 Rock veteran dials things down here in terms of her comic persona, but she’s still a breath of fresh air in what ends up being a far more stodgy and stale take on these types of all-star Clue games writ large. Christie’s murder mysteries featuring her famously fastidious hero were always one part brain teasers, one part primo pulp fiction, and several parts social caricaturing of the snobby rich, the high-society rotten, the rough-hewn working-class, and a variety of recognizable odds-and-sods types. All of the ingredients are in place. It’s just that the recipe is completely wrong.
It’s 1947, the legendary detective has retired, and now simply tends to his garden in a modest apartment in Venice. He’s had to hire a bodyguard (John Wick: Chapter 2‘s Riccardo Scamarcio) to keep all of his admirers and would-be clients at bay. Luckily, his old friend Oliver is granted an audience, and she has a proposition for him. Come with her to a seance on All Hallow’s Eve, where the famous medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) will attempt to contact the late daughter of the singer Rowena Drake (Yellowstone‘s Kelly Reilly). Oliver is sure that the psychic is a fake, and she wants Poirot to help her prove it. Besides, she needs fodder for a new book. Help a friend out, Hercule!
So he accompanies her to the Halloween shindig, meets Ms. Reynolds, and no sooner has someone tried to drown Poirot in a bobbing-for-apples tub than boom, there’s a dead body impaled on a statue. The assembled guests — an overly anxious doctor and his son (Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, both so good in Branagh’s coming-of-age movie Belfast), a housekeeper (Call My Agent‘s Camille Cottin), Reynolds’ assistants (Emma Laird and Ali Khan), the fiancé of Ms. Drake’s daughter (Kyle Allen) — are all aflutter. Though Poirot may be retired, he’s keen to catch the killer among them. “I knew you were in there,” Oliver says, as her friend starts to engage his little grey cells again. “All it took was a corpse.” Only now the detective, a longtime skeptic of anything involving the paranormal, begins to see and hear things… things of a possible supernatural nature….
And now the sleuthing starts, with Branagh dosing the usual whodunit template with a lot of fancy camera angles, a good deal of gothic atmosphere, and a whole lotta jump scares. Every name from the cast plays up their parts from mousy to manic, suspicious to very suspicious. Yet not even the combination of old-school murder mystery and hyped-up haunted house shenanigans can give this Poirot excursion a pulse. The actual mystery is why this feels so anemic and sluggish, even with some heavy hitters doing their best attempt at Agatha Christie archetypes. Put it this way: When you have Fey, Yeoh and Reilly in your ensemble, and you still can’t generate any sense of snap, crackle or pop? There’s a serious problem.
A Haunting in Venice makes good use of its locale, with tons of tourist-baiting shots of the city. It just doesn’t know what to do with the tried-and-true formula its got, or how to incorporate the tweaks to that formula in a way that jolts things into life. Even before the murderer is revealed, you’ll recognize the method in which the movie dispatches its victims: They, like us, were probably bored to death.