It’s been funny to see Knives Out essentially take the Hercule Poirot franchise’s lunch the last few years. That’s not to say Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie trilogy is an abject failure, but comparing the two franchises is a solid starting point to help underscore where his films are slightly lacking.
When Branagh is adapting famous texts, whether it be Christie’s mysteries, his plethora of Shakespeare adaptations, Cinderella, or even Thor, he appears to do so with great reverence. (Just don’t think about Artemis Fowl.) So much so that, in most cases, I’d argue that the text remains the main creative source in many of his directorial efforts, rather than him taking the source material and adding a personal touch to it. They’re obviously unencumbered by direct source texts, but the Knives Out films are pure Rian Johnson through and through, full of enough energy to power through any messiness. One can’t help but wish Branagh injected a little more liveliness — or even pulpiness — to cut through the old-fashionedness of these three films.
A personal running joke is how the prologue of Death on the Nile — which shows a young Poirot in battle during World War I — is essentially an origin story for Poirot’s mustache. To be fair, if any mustache deserves one, it’s probably Branagh’s. But, seeing that movie commit to such a silly story note without a shred of self-awareness is a perfect microcosm for these movies: they’re just a little too staid. They need a little more bite.
Misgivings aside, all three of Branagh’s Poirot films are pretty watchable. They’re perfect to jump into during their cable run. Easy to follow, never too demanding. And, A Haunting in Venice is probably the best of the bunch.
After years of solving cases, Hercule Poirot (Branagh) has become a slight shut-in. He’s mostly keeping to himself in Venice, eating pastries on a rooftop and watching the world go by. (Frankly, that sounds like a great life.) Until his old friend and author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) asks that he attend a seance with her so that he can help spot how a medium (Michelle Yeoh) is faking her performance. They join a party hosted by Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) at her dilapidated mansion in town so that Rowena can speak to her daughter who jumped to her death into the canal a year ago. Just as Poirot is about to reveal the medium’s scheme, an actual murder occurs, leading Poirot to once again attempt to crack the case.
There aren’t too many breaks from the formula in A Haunting in Venice. Once again, we have a group of possible suspects played by notable actors in a neat location. (Branagh must have had a lovely time working with Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, as they return to star here after just working with Branagh on Belfast.) In this case, the location is very neat. Part of the fun of mystery movies is the exotic locations. In part, Death on the Nile was underwhelming because of its very obvious CGI rendering of Egypt; A Haunting in Venice was filmed on location, and it shows in the film’s exterior shots. The rundown palazzo is also a great setting with its crumbling Gothic architecture and paintings that Branagh loves to distort with a fisheye lens.
After encountering a medium and her potential connection to the other side, much of A Haunting in Venice plays with the potential that there could be a ghost in this spooky ruin. Having a character who can out-logic anyone possibly encounter something illogical is a great setup, and while the film is definitely not scary, it does lend to some chilling atmosphere.
But as is the trend with Branagh’s Christie movies, A Haunting in Venice left me wanting. The core whodunnit lacks a bit of creativity, partly due to its conception but also in its presentation. Branagh’s directing, while clever in parts, remains stiff as it attempts to suffuse pulpy material with capital “D” Drama. Similarly, the performances are slightly out of sync aside from Michelle Yeoh who, fresh off her Oscar win for Everything Everywhere All at Once, knows exactly what type of movie this is. Tina Fey especially seems like the squeaky wheel; her line delivery feels incredibly forced. What’s that accent? Is she trying to be Katherine Hepburn?
Like its predecessors, A Haunting in Venice is desperate for some more playfulness. But, not everything needs to be perfect, and, in a lot of respects, the film gets the job done admirably. Frankly, an industry that once thrived on movies aiming for the middle and finding an audience could use a similar success story here. In this case, that success story is grandparents saying, “I saw this movie the other day on TNT. It was pretty good!”
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