“I speak to the ghosts here all the time.”
“Yes. They say you’re a fake.”
A tense, clever who-done-it with whip-crack, back and forth banter, A Haunting in Venice is also eerie, dreamlike and exotic. The mystery is chilling and compelling, carried with just the right amount of jump scares. It is lush, sybaritic and satisfying. A Haunting in Venice can be described as “What if they put him out to pasture but Columbo un-retires and tries to solve a mystical Scooby-Doo mystery in Italy?”
A Haunting in Venice is a 20th Century Studios production directed by Kenneth Branagh from a screenplay by Michael Green. The film is somewhat based on the 1969 Agatha Christie novel, Hallowe’en Party and is the third time Branagh is directing as well as playing Poirot after Murder on the Orient Express in 2017 and 2022’s Death on the Nile. A Haunting in Venice stars Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, Jude Hill, Jaime Dornan, Emma Laird, Kyle Allen, Kelly Reilly, Rowan Robinson, Ali Khan, Camille Cottin and Riccardo Scamarcio.
“You wake the bear from its sleep, you can’t complain when he tangos.”
“That’s not an expression in any language.”
The famous Belgian private investigator, Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is done with detective work. The combat shaken soldier and former policeman and has had his fill. He no longer wishes to serve his fellow man and has retreated from the fold to reside in seclusion. The horrors of war have left his mind and body bearing scars that mark him as a changed man. Fleeing his inner turmoil, Poirot walls himself off from the world and lives alone in a city slowly sinking into the Adriatic Sea.
Ariadne, the web-spinner of legend assisted Theseus in his escape from the labyrinth in Crete. Hercule’s friend, Ariadne Oliver (Fey) does the opposite. She says she wants to get him out of his house. She then draws Poirot into the convoluted and claustrophobic confines of her personal dilemma at hand. She’s got a job for him and hooks him from the start with a simple challenge to his ego. ““I am the smartest person I know and I couldn’t figure it out, so I called on the second smartest.”
Last year, in another part of Venice, Rowena Drake’s (Reilly) daughter Alicia (Robinson), leaped to her death, allegedly tormented by voices only she could hear. The police rule it a suicide. In a few days, there will be a Halloween party at Drake House. The entire city knows the mythology that has grown up around the house, that it’s haunted and that the restless spirits of vengeful children roam the halls. The celebrated medium Joyce Reynolds (Yeoh) will be on hand to pierce the veil and speak to the dead. Rowena is hoping Reynolds can connect her to Alicia.
Like Harry Houdini expertly exposing spiritualists as shams, Oliver wants Poirot there to use his skills and wits and declare Reynolds a fraud. Ariadne figures it will give her a banger of a best seller.
Baited out of retirement by the presence of that seemingly simple task like a somnolent shark sluggishly scenting nearby chum, Poirot agrees to go with Ariadne to the séance at Drake House on the sea-swept streets of Venice. A furious squall roils in as the partygoers make merry and by midnight it has become a full-blown storm.
The weather gets worse as the event winds down. Once most of the guests leave, it is time to get serious about the séance. Remaining to observe the action is the Drake’s jittery personal physician, Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Dornan) and his morbidly intense boy Leopold (Hill), who has his nose buried in Edgar Allen Poe novels when he’s not keeping an eye on his dad. Joining them are Ariadne, Poirot’s valet, Portfoglio (Scamarcio), the maid, Ms. Seminoff (Cottin) and Alicia’s ex-fiancé, Maxime Gerard (Allen). Reynolds arrives masked and hooded, in a long black cloak. She is warmly greeted by Rowena who is desperate to hear from her daughter.
After some preliminary shenanigans, Poirot is sure he knows what game is afoot. Abruptly, Ms. Reynolds seizes. She sputters. She shrieks. “The suicide isn’t a suicide,” she screams in an unnerving display. All present are taken aback and a temporary recess is called for. Poirot is temporarily baffled. The only witness who was with Alicia on the night in question is Harry the cockatoo, and he’s not talking.
Then the murders start. It’s up to Poirot to discover who is behind the killing and what terrors slumber in the stately but strangely decrepit Venetian townhouse. Something very weird is afoot at Drake House and very bad things have happened there. Can Hercule determine Alicia’s actual cause of death? Can he discover if there are, in fact, spirits clamoring for revenge? Can he divine why Drake House is so ramshackle and dilapidated? Will Ariadne get the material she needs for her book? Will she regret dragging Poirot out on a furiously storming Halloween night into another duel with danger and death? Who will live, who will die, who will survive until morning? Please see A Haunting in Venice to find out.
“Every murderer is someone’s old friend.”
A Haunting in Venice is a beautiful film. The city is displayed in all its glory, from dazzling, sun-swept rooftops to a decrepit mansion of the decadent rich and the darkest, dankest and dampest of basements within. The mood is perfectly conveyed scene to scene. In addition, everything the viewer requires for the solution of the mystery is generously provided on screen. Poirot processes all the clues as he and the audience discovers them. All of the puzzle pieces are present for keen-eyed observers to notice, leaving nothing left to ex-machina a solution at the end.
Using a Halloween party as the backdrop for the story presents a rebellious stance straining against the establishment sensibilities of the age. As policeman, veteran and former private investigator, Poirot is a symbol of the establishment. Hercule is the Man. The metaphysical nature of the science-cracking séance amplifies the rejection of the larger logic of the post-war atomic era. The titular Venice is full of establishing shots that are bright, sweeping vistas and blackened, airless vaults as required. A Haunting in Venice boasts largely excellent acting with standout performances from the earnest youth, Jude Hill and Michelle Yeoh as the mysterious medium, Joyce Reynolds. Under Branagh’s inspired direction, the scenes turns from hallucinatory gauze to tightly grounded reality at the drop of a dime. Caddy –corners abound in all their glory.
There is a darker sub-layer to the picture: both Poirot and Dr. Ferrier are broken men, having been wrecked by battle. Poirot wears his famous mustaches to cover his scarred face but Dr. Ferrier’s wounds aren’t so visible. He too has seen the horrors of modern mechanized war and acutely suffers from shell-shock. In an instant, with one look, Poirot and he recognize in each other the kinship of surviving the battlefield, of survivor’s guilt. Leopold knows this. He knows all about his father’s struggles and shame. The little boy is forced by circumstance to be the responsible one and take care of his father. Poirot notes that the distracted, disturbed and perturbed Dr. Ferrier is a poor physician.
The immaculately-dressed Poirot will never be as rumpled as Columbo, the unobtrusive, trenchcoat-clad, cigar-chomping homicide detective played by Peter Falk from 1971-2003, but like that legendary investigator, in A Haunting in Venice, he is constantly being underestimated by everyone he encounters. His interlocutors constantly assume that he retired for a reason and that he’s lost a step or two. What trips them up then and gives away the game isn’t Holmesian reasoning, it’s not the presence of heretofore unknown identical twins, it’s Poirot’s keen observations and their own guilty admissions in the face of inquiry. He’s not even a little rusty. “Just one more thing”, indeed.
Michelle Yeoh dazzles as Joyce Reynolds. Embodying the spirits of the dead, she is able to run the gamut of emotions with her face and entire body. It is an incredible physical performance and as a result, her séance is spooky as can be.
Jude Hill’s Leopold is a weirdo. He’s eccentric and tightly wound. He’s aged well beyond his years by his responsibilities, and though he doesn’t have the thousand yard stare his father is burdened with, he carries his own weight. There is a sadness in his eyes that wells out when he thinks no one is watching but most of the film he is inscrutable, face like a kabuki mask with only his venomous disdain for Ms. Reynolds apparent.
Tina Fey is Ariadne Oliver, all crackling energy and armed with a rapid-paced, amazing mid-Atlantic accent. She has an angle and she wants dibs on the story (see?). She quips with a sly grin and pulls on threads like her namesake. She looks like she’s having a lot of fun.
Jaime Dornan’s Dr. Leslie Ferrier is a perfect performance of a war-broken, sad-sack. He’s twitchy and yet occasionally sedated. He’s sitting on a furnace of rage and regret but he’s afraid to act. The worst part is, he wants to do the right thing and be the right kind of father to Leopold, but he knows that there’s something that’s gone horribly wrong inside his brain and it trips him up almost every time. It’s a poignant portrayal of mental illness, specifically Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Kelly Reilly’s Rowena Drake is straining to contain vast emotional contradictions. She gets to display her range as a disturbed and distraught mother, congenial host, terrorized witness of a murder as well as a stiff and haughty interrogation subject.
Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot is a magnificent display of stoic restraint. Even in the face of full blown panic, he remains composed and ready to smooth his mustaches. His Poirot is observant and articulates those observations lest they be missed. He is hard on those around him, holding them to a high standard and hoping they’ll pay attention. He is hardest on himself. Part of his tragedy is that he feels he failed on the fields of France. Seeing the flotsam the doctor’s life has become and the Ferrier’s odd relationship as well as having an urgent riddle to unravel seems to have provided the impetus for Poirot to finally forgive himself and get back on the horse.
A Haunting in Venice is a fun period-piece murder-mystery with supernatural elements. Though not a gothic tale of horror on the scale of something by the aforementioned Edgar Allen Poe, it’s a very good movie. The best part is everything works. It all fits in context and is there on screen for the viewer to play along and get to the bottom of the mystery. This reviewer has seen so many pictures where the protagonist solves their problems using their guns or their fists. In A Haunting in Venice, the protagonist uses his mind and his wits. This reviewer thinks we need more of these films.
A Haunting in Venice is in theatres 9/15/23
Hercule Poirot and Ariadne Oliver were created by Agatha Christie.