Branagh fills spirit in ‘A Haunting in Venice’

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

While ghosts appear in mirrors and characters are impaled on spikes, the most shocking thing on screen is the unflappable detective Hercule Poirot’s expression; he is afraid. 

“A Haunting in Venice” is a riveting departure for director and actor Kenneth Branagh, whose last two Poirot mysteries, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile,” were formulaic but enjoyable whodunits. After all, they were adaptations of two of the most well-known works from author Agatha Christie, which have been produced for the screen a combined eight times. With this film, Branagh decides to adapt a different, obscure Christie story — a decision that finally gives him the breathing room to experiment, and it mostly works. 

The story opens with an older, jaded Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast”) who has given up his life of sleuthing, happily letting his bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio, “Caravaggio’s Shadow”) get rid of any desperate would-be clients. Poirot is reluctantly pulled back in when his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, “30 Rock”) — in a remarkably fun performance — invites him to a séance performed by Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”), who Oliver suspects is truly communing with the dead. Tonight, Mrs. Reynolds will be in a haunted and decaying mansion channeling the owner’s daughter, who, driven by ghosts, took her own life. Poirot has to see for himself. 

Already, the premise is more macabre than the previous two entries. Branagh handles the subject matter well, though, showing off his skills at directing horror and crafting an ominous atmosphere. The film is delightfully creepy. 

The story continues, and things, of course, do not go as planned. Somebody has been murdered, and Poirot takes up his role as detective once again. Locking everyone in the mansion, he vows to keep everyone there until the murderer is caught. Unless the killer is something more… supernatural. 

The film moves at a good pace, the sense of unease significantly more intense than Branagh’s previous movies. He is able to keep the tension alive by fixing the camera on his own performance as Poirot says more with his eyes than any words on a script could. When Poirot looks out of his depth, the tension skyrockets. When his darting eyes show he has seen through a suspect’s story, the audience gets a jolt of excitement. It is a masterful technique.

So too is the way Branagh develops the film’s atmosphere. Halloween-decorated Venice is a beautifully and hauntingly crafted setting, morphing into a character itself. Waves batter with increasing force against the mansion walls as the mystery progresses, and Venetian-style buildings loom over the characters as they move through the city. It is unsettling. Unlike his other two Poirot films (especially the green-screen-ridden “Death on the Nile”), the setting actually serves the story being told.

However, the story here is less about twists and turns and more about the film’s greater subtext. In a departure from most Agatha Christie tales, this one takes place in the years following World War II. 

Branagh leans into the grief and loss Europe felt after the war, letting the ghosts that torment the characters be both literal and figurative. Poirot hints at the horrible things he witnessed in battle; there are tales of murdered children, people hearing from the dead and a boy caring for his PTSD-stricken father. Death pervades — even haunts — the film.

This is exactly what Poirot says at the end of the movie, continuing the endearing tradition in every Branagh movie since “Hamlet” of hammering home the themes with the understatement of a sledgehammer. No one ever said Branagh was subtle. 

Branagh is an undeniably talented filmmaker, and that talent has been put to great use in “A Haunting in Venice.” The film should make any movie-lover eager to see what mysteries perplex the great detective Hercule Poirot in his next adventure.