The Halloween spirit arrived early this year with A Haunting In Venice, a spooky whodunit. This is Sir Kenneth Branagh’s third outing as famous Detective Hercule Poirot, after adapting other Agatha Christie classics Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile.
While the previous films are more traditional murder mysteries, A Haunting In Venice takes the dark, stone steps down into the horror genre. This film is based on Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, with plenty of changes besides the title.
This article contains vague spoilers for A Haunting In Venice.
What Is A Haunting In Venice About?
Agatha Christie had written over 70 novels in the 20th century, the majority of them being detective stories. And the majority of those stories followed Hercule Poirot, an eccentric detective that solved cases against impossible odds, much like Sherlock Holmes.
In A Haunting In Venice, the mustachioed sleuth faces off against the supposed supernatural. Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), now retired, attends a seance at the behest of his friend, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey). Poirot asserts his skepticism of curses and communing with the dead, and he is surprised when the dead acquire a new resident this very same night.
So once again, Poirot is faced with a murder, and a list of suspects. But now the silence of this claustrophobic palace is driving him mental. Is this crime the work of a clever killer, or are the ghosts giving Poirot a case he cannot hope to solve?
Story & Character
While this tale is based off of Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, many major points have been changed. For instance, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) was never an old medium, but a 13-year-old girl that witnessed a murder. The original story doesn’t even take place in Venice!
The minor characters each have their own wants and responses to the lethal situation. They are interesting to watch when they each have their “moment,” but those moments are easy to forget and move past. Tina Fey plays Tina Fey, and that’s never really a bad thing.
We can’t not talk about the aforementioned Michelle Yeoh and her exciting performance as the mysterious medium, Joyce Reynolds. The séance scene is well done and she is the carrying force through it. Her expression of madness as she communes with the spirits is one of the more memorable images of the film.
Another standout is the character Leopold Ferrier (Jude Hill), son of the traumatized family doctor. He has a lot of weight to bear at such a young age, between communing with ghosts and taking care of his father. His witty persona contrasted by his need to be the parent to his own dad made me want to root for him.
Overall though, the side characters are mostly staple murder mystery tropes. They seem to be there to bounce back to the main character conflict of the film: Poirot’s battle with his perception of death.
Throughout A Haunting In Venice, Poirot hears the echoes of small children and sees ghosts hidden in the shadows. He’s a man with a taste for what is tangible, being challenged with the possibility that his assumptions about the afterlife are incorrect. It’s fun to see the detective fight off the notion of a supernatural killer, only to be tested on his beliefs over and over again.
Dutch angles and moody color grading galore! You can tell Branagh is excited to lean – or rather dive into the dark whimsy that Poirot’s world has been waiting on.
The Grand Canal is cold and quiet. Masked figures float along gondolas through the city’s evening, as if ferrying the dead. Inside the palazzo, where most of the film takes place, walls of brick and limestone surround faded marble floors. The dim light of lanterns adds to the stuffy sense of claustrophobia.
Speaking of lighting, A Haunting In Venice consists almost entirely of scenes set in darkness, but they’re still perfectly clear. The cryptic shadows are obvious on screen without horrendous compression, and the audience can still make out all of the necessary details.
I will say that as neat as the palazzo setting is, I wish the investigation took place on the streets and rivers of Venice itself. We get so many aesthetically wonderful shots showing how quiet and chilling the city can be, but we barely see the characters out in that world.
A Haunting In Venice contains a traditional whodunit story, but includes the unique aspect of phenomena going on within the house that our detective can’t easily solve with his trustworthy rationalism. Each suspect being ruled out adds to the fear in Poirot’s mind that the culprit is someone he can’t bind in cuffs.
This psychological challenge takes the forefront of the movie while the typical flow of interrogating suspects and ruling them out is followed between ghostly events.
Like any good murder mystery, the film holds multiple secrets away from Poirot and the audience, and peels back the curtain slowly. I found clues and answers in every other scene, but still was nowhere near the solution to the one, truly important question: who/what is the killer?
The answer of course is obvious upon a second viewing, and can easily be picked up in the first if someone is paying attention to the right spots in the right shots. When Poirot announced the killer’s identity, I was more invested in the “why/how” of it all, which does get explained in a satisfying, neatly-wrapped way.
A Haunting In Venice: Final Thoughts
This is my favorite of the three modern Poirot films. It can feel a little one-note at times, but is overall still an enjoyable mystery.
A loveable cast plays unique-but-forgettable characters, in a chilling vision of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, through a somewhat standard murder mystery tale that I still loved sitting through.