Early in the film, a crime writer appears, Tina Fey playing Ariadne Oliver (a recurring character in the Poirot novels on which these films are very liberally based). Amusingly, she refers to having written several classics and three books (her most recent three) that were rejected by critics and accused of being ‘small beer’. One can’t help but think of the brilliant lineage Christie’s novels, and of many stellar adaptations throughout the years, and how we now have three, ‘small beer’ at best, films directed by (and starring) Kenneth Branagh.
Now that we are three films in, it no longer seems to matter that the spirit and essence of Poirot have been butchered. It is hard to get as cross about it as one can with Death on the Nile (2022), perhaps aided by this being a better film. Branagh has dropped the obnoxious style of the first two films in his now trilogy, a carnivalesque excess stripped back to a film that feels much more contained — and far less obsessed with feeling flashy and modern. It is actually his most expressive and experimental work in a long time, more so than the unforgiveable schmaltz of Belfast (2021). Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it good. It certainly is a film of decisions, and is populated with a number of good actors who actually do some good acting (not everybody, don’t worry, there’s still a lot of characteristic clunkiness and awkwardness). However, the aforementioned decisions are bad and the result is a contained slice of moderate nonsense.
Let’s set the scene, though. We are three films in — for the record, Poirot appears in 33 novels, two plays and 51 short stories from Christie — and Branagh has already positioned the Belgian Detective as retired. He is jaded by what he has seen, convinced he is a harbinger of death and wants to be left alone in Venice. It is a forced and unnecessary contrivance, not only there just so ‘one more case’ can appear — and get the added importance that trope gives it — but also to facilitate a twist towards the end. Though it does make sense, to an extent, because this character (like the presumed audience) has had to experience Death on the Nile. Quitting after that makes sense. However, one honest benefit of this far too early adoption of the past-it detective is that it shifts the tone. Cameras still take off at random points and go mad but this is a more low-key and contained story. The story itself is a ghostly one: a supposed haunted house in Venice was the place of a presumed suicide, now the mother of the dead daughter is hosting a Halloween party, one that will end with a séance. Michelle Yeoh plays our mystic, as brilliant as she always is. She brings a theatricality and presence beyond the script — though the writing certainly can’t keep up with her ability to be enigmatic and multifaceted, the character still feels hollow and contradictory in spite of her performance.
From here, we build to murder and investigation. We also have a Poirot who thinks he is seeing things and is perhaps succumbing to the haunted house. Like with all not-very-good whodunnits, there’s not enough to it to engage you in the mystery so you just sit and wait for it to be solved. These Branagh affairs have never been good at laying out the clues to the audience, instead they build up to final reveals where Poirot says some stuff based on evidence the viewer didn’t really have and solves the thing. We can make assertions, we can work out the smaller mysteries (and some are clankingly obvious here), but it is far from an elegant puzzler. It is compelling enough, a mystery you do want to have solved on screen and the solutions, though silly, do dramatically satisfy.
The problem, really, is the filmmaking. Branagh is having so much fun playing in the pseudo-horror mode that the film becomes a bunch of visual nonsense. It is overly inspired by expressionist and gothic filmmaking to the extent that no angle goes uncanted. It really is more Battlefield Earth (2000) than Caligari (1920). It is just a 103-minute barrage of visual affectations, a death by a thousand frames. Truly, many of them could be effective but the cumulative impact is just nonsense. At points, it is also incoherent, especially when there is any modicum of action or suspense. And then we have how almost every dialogue scene is this bizarre framing of the person talking, slightly away from the centre of the frame and giving every appearance of being a video game NPC in an RPG dialogue section (where you choose your own conversation options, the camera adopting the view of the player, while the other character speaks at you). It is theatrical, all of it, but it is deployed so badly that it is only ever annoying. A shame because the cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, does pull off some impressive shots. Lighting is well done and there are fleeting moments of beauty. The direction just ruins this, though, as any pretty moments are lost in a gothic montage.
Truly, A Haunting in Venice is the best of Branagh’s Poirot films. It is the least obnoxious and it has the best storytelling. It is still utter pants. It never quite makes enough sense, never really sells the gothic layer it wants to force onto the character and it is visually frustrating. It is the first time these failings have had a charm, though. This is more of a noble and enjoyable failure, a film where Branagh and co. try something and get some credit for doing so. It is a committed gothic pastiche, it is just that the filmmakers aren’t able to pull this off. They certainly try though, with every twisted frame.