Multi-hyphenate talent Kenneth Branagh has seen himself split in two on either side of the pandemic, his creative style shifting out of the high budget, high concept creative excess that summed up his string of work in the 2010s, in favor of a return to more intimate, subtle, genre-intensive filmmaking. What we saw out of Belfast was nothing but payoff in that regard, rolling the dice on a smaller film playing merely for the moment and nothing more. To see him apply that principle to another borrowed muse of his, when before he took a flashier route, that much is a welcome test of his adaptability, if not also an essential return to form.
With A Haunting in Venice, his third time immortalizing Agatha Christie’s peculiar and eccentric detective Hercule Poirot is somehow the charm. The scaled back kind that can lean with delight on both character strengths and foreboding atmospherics without a large need for digital gimmickry. With feet on the cobblestone, real suspense and intellect take to a fresh rank, insofar to complement, if not also surpass what came before.
While the misguided and dripping-in-excess Death on the Nile did plenty to further Poirot’s problematic past, Haunting (a slight remodeling of Christie’s Hallowe’en Party) goes deep to counter the doubt plaguing his present mind. Riddled by guilt and missed opportunity, he’s settled to post-WWII Italy with all its charms, enjoying a self-imposed retirement from sleuthing. Peace and calm might be all but a facade, prior transgressions weighing heavy.
It takes a spirited visit from a close friend, mystery author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) to pull Poirot out of his doldrums. He agrees to tag along to an All-Hallows’ soiree for the local orphan kids, centered around a seance for wealthy socialite Rowena Drake (a chipper Kelly Reilly), looking for answers to her daughter’s mysterious death. With experienced medium Joyce (Michelle Yeoh) contracted to facilitate, the party guests swarm around for this conference with the dead. Before long, it all turns very real, very dark when someone among the rabble is murdered. Poirot soon places the key attendees on blast, his procedural instincts revived with unchallenged gusto and re-sharpened focus to spare.
Such is Branagh and returning screenwriter Michael Green’s aim with this threequel, a film no one would’ve expected after middling returns and low-grade controversy. Let alone one that can be this energetic and witty, following familiar beats while working with more stripped down, even experimental ideas. The result is usually spectacular, if not also reserved with its energy. The writing is a bit convoluted, but the characterizations make up the difference, propelling Christie’s manuscript to a zone of confident stride. In no small terms does Branagh manage to strike lightning twice in the exact same place, where events are one thing, but a strong ensemble cast is double the wattage.
The way this evergreen director can guide his actors, emphasizing substance under high mental stamina, that is still wonderfully infectious. And they all return it tenfold, to the relief of many. Between Rowena, Joyce, Ariadne, the disturbed Dr. Ferrier (a chilling Jamie Dornan) and his son Leopold (an ever-charming Jude Hill), jaded housekeeper and caretaker Olga (a droll Camille Cottin), and star-crossed lovers Nicholas (Ali Khan) & Desdemona (Emma Laird), they’re all suspicious to a fault, eccentric to no end, fun without drowning in silliness, maintaining a level swivel. To no-one’s surprise, it’s Miss Fey who makes quick work of stealing every scene she is in, channeling her inner Angela Lansbury/Jessica Fletcher with pure comic precision, stopping short at bubbly mimicry, but not wasting her chance to dryly spar with her close ally. She and Branagh feed off each other’s quiet intensity without fail, one wishes there’d been more of their idyllic chemistry to share.
As with the first two, nobody is exempt from Hercule’s invasive line of questioning, his tact building up each suspect from mere lurking figures. And in Branagh’s hands, the same goes for his own performance, invoking further spontaneity and ferocity, even when not answering those quirks first asked a year and change prior. If his intentions ring true to continue building a “Christie cinematic universe,” perhaps those open wounds from Nile can finally sew themselves up. What we see instead is the space for Branagh to stoke a fire, allow it to burn, and make the most of his newfound second brush with self-control.
Underspending works better for any auteur, it requires them not to tether to big screen illusions that might look good, but do not always capture a mood as well as they could for simple decor. For Branagh, it’s his natural sweet spot, aiming more for the practical and instinctive with both feet square on terra firma. For him to scratch his B-movie horror itch once more under these circumstances is an unexpected joy, paying many respects to Christie’s own sense of free-range disquisition.
To say they might almost think alike would be an understatement; more of her idea of style resonates throughout, never appearing false or hokey, growing exponentially in both suspense and dread. Almost like a slicker James Whale incarnate, only perhaps a bit more playful. The efforts of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Tár), DP Haris Zambarloukos (Eye in the Sky), and designers Sammy Sheldon (Eternals) & John Paul Kelly (Operation Mincemeat) are outright impossible not to notice in that regard. The line between reckless wit and serious investigation needn’t be blurred as much as it is ignored entirely under their approach. And this yarn is perhaps better off for it, melding the two for the sake of crafting a spooky jaunt that can go gothic, but is not excessively dark.
It’s all for fun seeing both Branagh venture back into a lost form of familiar, just as his literary muse dives into the slightly unfamiliar, the frightening on top of the murderous. A Haunting in Venice brings his most current franchise back to footing once unfathomable in the wake of a lukewarm middle effort, excelling in simply enjoying its own ride, bravely stepping forward to rouse a spirited jaunt from permanent sleep. And set the table for probable future genre-bending, if said director were to have his way. With dense visual ambiences and a captive ensemble on hand, and despite a story that requires a few hoops to jump over, bouncing past some essential clues, one would say their respective causes for deduction are once more in the right place. (B-; 3.5/5)
A Haunting in Venice opens in theaters September 15, full previews begin 6PM September 14; rated PG-13 for strong violence, disturbing images, and thematic elements; 103 minutes.