A pensive but evocative take on a lesser-known, late-career Agatha Christie novel, A Haunting In Venice finds Kenneth Branagh, the director and the actor, in a far more subdued zone than the ones that he was in Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, his two previous Hercule Poirot adaptations.
In tone and tenor, Branagh’s third outing with the queen of crime is more ambience and atmosphere than flourish and vigour. Its visual style does not bank so much on scale and grandeur as it does on the specificities of location and mood. That works wonders and makes A Haunting In Venice the best that Branagh has done with Agatha Christie.
The 103-minute film is not only redolent of the period – a couple of years after end of World War II – but also of the mysteries of the nocturnal that seek attention when darkness descends on a dimly-lit Venetian manor that has seen better days.
Michael Greene’s minimalist screenplay relocates the action from an English village to the grand Italian city of canals and imposing edifices that dwarf the humans that dwell in them, alters many key details of Agatha Christie’s book (Hallowe’en Party) and endows several of the characters with attributes and back stories that they do not have in the crime novel about a murder victim whose spirit returns to haunt the living.
The changes in emphasis help Branagh to break generic confines and examine questions that go beyond a murder or two – the film has three – although A Haunting In Venice, notwithstanding it splashes of the spooky, remains a whodunit in the classic mould.
A Haunting In Venice, a couple of jump scares notwithstanding, may not chill you to the bones but as a story focused on the emotional and psychological fallout of a devastating war, it works brilliantly. It peeps into scarred souls trapped in a Venetian palazzo where mediums and magic, gods and ghosts, dread and deliverance jostle for space with the scorn that Hercule Poirot directs at the gullible.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos uses skewed angles and apertures to lend the visuals an aptly haunting quality that enhances the funereal air hanging over Venice and the cold, forbidding vibes prevailing inside the building in which large parts of the film unfold.
There is neither death nor murder in the title, but the stench of war, pestilence and toxicity are all-pervasive in a film in which Hercule Poirot (Branagh) finds himself trying to solve a case that, in the eyes of the credulous, may be in the domain of the occult.
But before the detective can get to the bottom of the truth, using hunches and inferences rather than a gathering of irrefutable evidence, he must rid himself of all the irrational thoughts that cross his mind. Poirot, usually cock-sure and garrulous, is for once is assailed by doubts as inexplicable goings-on and voices threaten to shake his commitment to temporal logic.
Poirot (Branagh) has retired from detective work. He has hired an ex-policeman (Riccardo Scamarcio) as a bodyguard to keep potential clients away. The only outsider who has access to the now-reclusive sleuth is the baker. No more cases, Poirot is into cakes.
His splendid self-imposed isolation is broken by an apple carried to his door by an old friend and mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who lures him against his own good counsel to a gloomy, crumbling, baroque palazzo where a seance is scheduled to be conducted by a famed psychic Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) on All Hallows’ Eve.
The manor – every building in Venice, somebody says, is haunted – is believed to be cursed because it was once an orphanage where the doctors and nurses left a large number of children to perish during the Black Death. Poirot, of course, has no belief in such mumbo-jumbo although he agrees that scars are not always of the body.
A Haunting In Venice proceeds to presents fragmentary proof of the tricks that the mind can play on places and people that have suffered, sometimes for no fault of their own. Poirot’s job, as always, is to identify the person, or persons, who are responsible for their own misery – and three “impossible” murders.
The palazzo is owned by Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who no longer has the financial means to fix the leaks that decrepit building has sprung nor is she able to sell it off given its reputation. Joyce Reynolds, in the course of the Halloween night seance, establishes contact with Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson), Rowena’s daughter who recently fell off her balcony and drowned in the canal.
Besides Poirot, Ariadne, Rowena and the medium Joyce Reynolds, the seance is attended by seven others – the religious housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), Doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his precocious son Leopold (Jude Hill, the lead of Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast), natty chef and Alicia’s one-time fiance; Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Poirot’s burly bodyguard Vitale and the Holland siblings, Nicholas (Ali Khan) and Desdemona (Emma Laird).
Each one of them is a suspect. And all of them have demons of their own minds to reckon with even as vendetta-seeking spirits of dead children are on the prowl. Poirot’s fierce disregard of superstition is put to the test as leads tumble out of the palazzo’s nooks and crannies.
Once the film takes us into the palazzo, we stay bound to the interiors that hold many a terror. Sporadic aerial shots of Venice establish the beauty and the inscrutability of a city that itself hides many a mystery in the depths of its canals and beyond the thick walls of its buildings.
Leopold, the little boy who reads Edgar Allan Poe at an age when he should be immersed in the world of fairy tales, knows much more than he is willing to let on. His brooding father, ex-army doctor, struggles to live down an unhappy past.
The only happy memories that Nicholas and his sister Desdemona, who lost their family in the war, have are of half of the Hollywood musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The siblings hope to leave for Missouri. The girl even has a Kensington address in mind. “I don’t know how it (the film) ends,” Desdemona says. “It ends happily,” Ariadne informs her.
Happiness is only an aspiration in the post-war world that we encounter in A Haunting In Venice. Branagh locates the sombre and the sobering in a well-delineated time and place, elevating the film above the tropes that are an inevitable part of what is essentially a genre exercise.
Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey