By Lindsey Bahr | Associated Press
Kenneth Branagh indulges in the kind of macabre theatricality that only a ruined Venetian palace on a stormy Halloween night can deliver in “A Haunting in Venice.” »
Moviegoers have probably long since made up their minds one way or another about Branagh’s majestic and flawed Hercule Poirot franchise, but if there’s any curiosity left for this third installment, it’s worth it. It’s scary, funny, and stars Tina Fey, sleek and stylish in her post-war costumes, as a fast-paced bestselling crime writer who says things like “I’m the smartest person I know” with a mid-Atlantic accent.
Set in 1947 on a particularly foggy night in the canal city, “A Haunting in Venice” is stunning to look at, with costumes by Sammy Sheldon, set design by John Paul Kelly and cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos. And it’s peppered with brooding but palatable scares that recall classics like “The Innocents” and “The Others,” bolstered by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score. In other words, it might not excite a “Saw” enthusiast, but for the more easily spooked and nervous, it hits just the right notes.
Agatha Christie takes a bit of a back seat here, while Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green only draw inspiration from her 1969 book “The Hallowe’en Party” for their haunting, initially moving it to Venice. This is where Poirot chose to live out his self-imposed retirement (an enviable exile if ever there was one). However, his whereabouts are no secret: desperate people line up outside his quaint apartment in the hope that he will try to solve their case. But for now, a handsome Italian bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) is there to make sure they don’t come close enough to ask.
Ariadne Oliver de Fey, however, walks through the doors with a different kind of offer: she wants Poirot to accompany her to a session. This outlet, she says, appears to be the real deal and only he will be able to figure out if it’s just a trap. Soon, reluctantly, he finds himself at a Halloween party for the town’s orphans, hosted by a famous opera singer, Rowena, (Kelly Reilly) along with a deceased famous girl they hope to contact later in the evening when the children leave.
Branagh recruited some of his “Belfast” stars into this ensemble, including Jamie Dornan as a doctor still haunted by the war and Jude Hill as his precocious son Leopold. Camille Cottin is a housekeeper, Kyle Allen is the dead girl’s ex-fiancé, and Michelle Yeoh is the theatrical medium Mrs. Reynolds, who seems to be having a great time chewing the scenery as a possible femme fatale. It’s a distinct tonal shift from the previous films – sadder and more serious, with heartbreak and death everywhere. Even before Alicia’s mysterious death (on a balcony, in the canal with a horrible scratch on her back), the grand palace had a body count: this is where doctors allegedly locked children up to die for Plague.
And this crew is in for a long, stormy, claustrophobic night with accusations, more deaths, and unexplainable phenomena at play. Poirot’s existential crisis is probably the least interesting aspect of it all, despite its centrality to the plot, but Branagh doesn’t waste too much time diving into these indulgent waters.
Maybe Branagh should have leaned more into horror all this time with this franchise. Or maybe it’s underestimating a director whose work is prolific and not always personal. It can be difficult to take stock of a filmmaker’s career when they’ve made superb adaptations of Shakespeare and Cinderella as well as “Thor” and “Artemis Fowl.” But it’s always a pleasant surprise when it works like “A Haunting in Venice” does.
“A Haunting in Venice”
3 stars out of 4
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements)
Operating time: 107 minutes