A Haunting in Venice –

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A Haunting in Venice is a quaint wide release in 2023. The detective mystery hasn’t been in vogue in a long time, though there has been life for it here and there. Knives Out and its sequel Glass Onion performed well, and streaming has supported shows like Only Murders in the Building. Still, detective-themed theatrical releases remain few and far between.

Yet, somehow, Kenneth Branagh is now on his third film that he has both directed and starred in as famed Agatha Christie detective Hercule Poirot. Sporting a distinctively large mustache and French accent, Branagh has managed to take this once-dead genre (no pun intended) to box office success three times. A Haunting in Venice isn’t only old-fashioned because of its genre, but because Branagh adopts an old-fashioned directing style to deliver a film that feels different in today’s box office climate, even if it is not always successful.

The film sets up its themes of grief and pain early. Featuring Hercule hiding away in Venice and shut off from the world, the retired detective has lost his moxie and desire to solve mysteries. Tina Fey comes sauntering into the film as a murder mystery novelist spouting a mid-Atlantic accent. An old friend of Poirot, she signals her presence with an apple, a visual metaphor throughout the film, which allows her to speak with Poirot and tempt him back into action with the lure of debunking a medium at a séance that night. Poirot is a skeptic, of course, and also voices his disdain for the idea of an afterlife after all the evil and death he has seen. Predictably enough, though, Poirot attends. A murder happens. The supernatural is implicated. And a gathered group are held in place for the night while Poirot investigates which one of them is responsible for the killing.

Branagh’s performance matches the film in its evocation of a bygone era. He is showy and large, while infusing Poirot with a certain ethos and pain that sells the occasionally simplistic dialogue. This series’ success has been due in part to expansive and varying star casts, whom Branagh leads with much aplomb. This is probably the least star-studded of the three films, with Michelle Yeoh and Tina Fey as the only other really big names in the film.

That’s not to say the others are lesser. Au contraire. There is quite a bit of good acting in the film. Jamie Dornan is excellent as a doctor dealing with PTSD, another character who helps inform the themes of pain and loss, and his interactions with his son are a delight to see. Yeoh and Fey are both a joy to watch as well, though Fey’s Katharine Hepburn imitation comes across just a little too broad at times. It’s also amusing to see Kelly Reilly in the film, who had a supporting role in two films with another famous literary detective, Sherlock Holmes.

The mystery is decently staged, albeit a bit too dependent on Poirot piecing together improbable threads. Branagh seems to enjoy the horror angle with his direction, emphasizing spooky moments. An abundance of close-up, slanted-perspective shots starts to feel overdone, not unlike his overreliance on Dutch angles in Thor; Branagh is the type of director who gets too infatuated with a shot for a particular film. This may give his films distinctiveness, but less is more.

A Haunting in Venice‘s other major flaw is the simplistic and underwritten character arcs. While there are some strong themes, the film doesn’t quite develop everything it needed to in order to convey to the audience that progression happened. The film wants to sell the idea that Poirot goes through an arc of learning how to deal with feeling like he lost his place in the world, but too few scenes actually move this forward meaningfully. Branagh leans too much on scenes of Poirot silently emoting alone, wrestling with whether he is seeing real ghosts. All of the foundation blocks are here, from the solving of the mystery to the side characters and more, but they don’t build into a fully satisfying feature.

Still, A Haunting in Venice is a decently crafted mystery, a clear leg above the jumbled second entry, and maybe even better than the Murder on the Orient Express remake that kicked this series off. This is the most stately of the trilogy, no longer bothering for modern commercial appeal. While this is still a franchise and IP, it is comforting that someone like Branagh can get three of these into theaters. These seem like fun passion projects for him, rather than a studio’s soulless money milking. If all IP movies had that same drive behind it, the modern box office might be in better shape.

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