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VENICE THE MENACE
A Haunting in Venice (12A)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Jamie Dornan
Review: RJ Bland
Although very much their own thing, murder mystery and crime are two sub-genres that occasionally venture into the murky world of horror. Now more than ever there is an abundance of true-crime series and police procedurals, but quite often these types of shows are relatively mild. The sort of stuff your parents (or you!) might sit down and watch on a Sunday evening on BBC or ITV. However the fact remains that when the central plot revolves around murder(s) and death, there is scope for something a bit more chilling. Films like From Hell (2001), Identity (2003) and Seven (1995) are all murder mysteries at heart. Their narratives revolve around solving the puzzle of who the killer is. Hell, even Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) is essentially a glossy, satirical whodunnit, as were countless slashers before it. Bodies, Bodies, Bodies (2022) is perhaps the most recent example of a movie that has straddled both murder mystery and horror and anyone with any knowledge of iconic author Agatha Christie, will recognise the inspiration it takes from her 1939 classic novel And Then There Were None. Director Kenneth Branagh has given us a couple of other more direct Christie adaptations too, with Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and the star-studded Death on the Nile (2022) making big waves at the box office. Neither are genre though, which is why they haven’t been covered on this site before, but you only have to look at the title of Branagh’s latest Poirot movie, A Haunting in Venice, to know that it’s worthy of your consideration…
Based on Hallowe’en Party (1969), one of Christie’s lesser notable works, we find legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) living a life of leisurely retirement in post WW2 Venice. He lives a life of solitude however, save for the occasional perfunctory exchange with his uncompromising bodyguard, who spends most of his time keeping people desperate for Poirot’s help at bay. It’s clear that years of solving grisly murders has taken its toll on Poirot and he has no time for it anymore. However, one day he receives an unexpected guest who challenges his dormancy. She’s a crime writer by the name of Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) and she wants to enlist his observational talent to help debunk a heralded medium called Mrs Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). This acclaimed psychic is due to attend a séance at a grand palazzo organised by a woman named Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who tragically lost her daughter a year ago and wants to contact her spirit. Poirot reluctantly agrees and the two of them head off to the Halloween party that’s taking place before the séance. Soon there’s a murder and with a storm raging outside, ol' Hercule is compelled to initiate a lockdown so he can solve the crime before the killer legs it…
Firstly, and pleasingly, it’s worth stating that whilst A Haunting in Venice is not a bona fide haunted house movie, there are enough spooky goings on for horror to be amongst the genre boxes it ticks. It’s dark, it’s gothic and steeped in atmosphere and dread. The portrayal of Venice in the early part of the film is every bit as ominous as Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). It’s a city of beauty and romance but underneath its idyllic façade is a city crumbling and decaying and not long for this world. It’s a perfect setting for our hero to have settled into so comfortably and for the events that unfold. It’s inside the cavernous palazzo though where there is so much fun to be had from a genre perspective and that’s in no small part down to Branagh’s inspired direction. There’s no doubt that he is a safe pair of hands behind the camera, but this is the best-looking film he has made in the last decade. He knows how to build suspense too, deftly mixing super wide shots and jaunty angles with more intimate moments and sneaks in a couple of decent jump scares amongst the atmosphere building. Whilst admittedly being a rather detached and chilly affair, A Haunting in Venice still manages to be an immersive viewing experience and that is all down to Branagh’s stylised vision.
The plot itself treads a well-worn path and although it invites its audience to play a guessing game, by the time the riddle is solved you can’t help but feel that any time spent sleuthing was a little pointless. We’re not privy to some of the most important details. Poirot has figured these out himself and not kept us in the loop. It’s probably best to sit back and let this eerie mystery wash over you. Branagh is as charmingly eccentric as you’d expect from a hero as idiosyncratic as Hercule Poirot and he’s ably supported by an impressive cast. Tina Fey, Jamie Dornan, Michelle Yeoh, Camille Cottin all do their bit to elevate proceedings and give it a bit more gravitas, whilst Jude Hill is wonderful as the precocious little Leopold.
There’s no denying that A Haunting in Venice does feel a bit like a lofty BBC drama and the fact that it’s not emotionally compelling will mean that it won’t land with certain audience members. But as a bit of spooky Autumnal escapism, it goes down a treat.
Yes, it’s a horror movie (well, sort of) and yes it’s better than the previous two Poirot films. No, the story isn’t anything special but as an atmosphere piece, it’s rather splendid.
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