I knew almost nothing about A Haunting in Venice when I walked into the theater. I actually assumed it was part of the The Haunting in Connecticut (what a difference an article makes!) series of movies, and expected something filled with ghosts and jump scares. When we are immediately introduced to famed mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh who also directs), I was a bit put off, but then excited at the prospect of the Agatha Christie mystery I didn’t realize I’d stepped into! Using Michael Green’s (Death on the Nile, Alien: Covenant) screenplay based loosely on the 1969 Agatha Christie novel Halowe’en Party, Kenneth Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Meg 2, Death on the Nile) create an enthralling mashup of “old haunted building” meets “twisty-turny mystery” that is a master class on making the setting a central character in the story.
A Haunting in Venice features an all-star cast and spooky, old Venetian palazzo.
The movie opens with sweeping views of many of Venice’s most famous landmarks, eventually landing on Hercule Poirot enjoying his retirement on the outdoor terrace of his own Venetian palazzo on Halloween. Ariadne Oliver, a characterization of Agatha Christie played by Tina Fey, convinces the detective to come out of retirement for one night only by dangling the opportunity to debunk a medium (Michelle Yeoh). The goal of the seance is to contact the spirit of opera singer and grieving mother Rowena Drake’s (Kelly Reilly) daughter, and find out her murderer. They set out on gondolas through the Venice canals, steered by masked and cloaked gondoliers, to a charity Halloween party being thrown for orphans pre-seance in the very palazzo where Alicia Drake was killed.
As with all Christie novels, the cast of characters are all suspects, and Poirot locks them all in the haunted palazzo until the mystery is solved. There is the doctor with “shell shock” who served as a medic in the war named Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan); Ferrier’s wise-beyond-his-years son Leopold (Jude Hill), who asks revealing questions; Rowena’s devoted housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin); Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Alicia’s former American boyfriend; and Mrs. Reynolds’ assistants, sibling con artists Desdemona and Nicholas Holland (Emma Laird and Ali Khan) who are war refugees. Also a hallmark of Christie’s work is the subsequent deaths of suspects in a futile attempt by the original murderer to escape detection.
The direction and cinematography in the film – the close-ups of gargoyles and the angles from which the actors are shot that evoke a feeling of always being watched, never being alone – are quite EXTRA, and of a bygone cinematic age. There is just enough violent death to satisfy the horror fan, just enough paranormal activity to leave the viewer wondering if the corporeal beings aren’t alone in the palazzo – itself the scene of gruesome crimes a century prior. There is a grandeur to the movie that isn’t much seen these days, it is set in the 1940’s, but seems older because Venice and its ghosts are timeless. The performances and their accents are perfection, and who would expect anything less with Kenneth Branagh at the helm. For the cinematography alone, I recommend seeing this while it is still in theaters – but these days most people’s TVs are so large, it won’t lose much by being streamed from the couch.
As someone who read many Agatha Christie novels in my early teens, a self-proclaimed horror afficionado, AND a theater nerd, this film was a wonderful adventure that satisfied all my personalities.