A classic Christie whodunit with an appealing cast and great atmosphere.
Plot: Retired sleuth Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) accepts a friend’s invitation to attend a séance in a haunted house, only to find himself tasked with solving a murder.
Review: I haven’t been a huge fan, to date, of Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot series. Murder on the Orient Express was okay, and I didn’t care for Death on the Nile. To be fair, in the latter’s case, I wasn’t crazy for the original, either – maybe it’s just the story I’m not feeling. I didn’t bother seeing A Haunting in Venice in the theatre – for me, Branagh’s tales of the detective with the little grey cells were left to streaming.
A Haunting in Venice is Branagh’s best Christie flick to date. A change from the previous two entries: there was more atmosphere in this film than the previous ones. Part of that has to do with the subject matter – ghost stories on Halloween night are easy to make creepy. The majority, though, has to be a shift in scope from Branagh. Both Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile were big, star-laden productions with great cinematography and expansive stories. A Haunting in Venice, however, is a smaller movie. There’s still great shots (this time of Venice, natch), but this movie takes place primarily in one location – a big creepy house. It’s smaller, more intimate, cozier, and, best yet, lessens the number of characters, so you don’t need a program to tell who’s who.
This last point is important because the characters are well-developed. Standouts include Michelle Yeoh as the charlatan medium and Tina Fey as the wise-cracking (what else?) American writer. I feel in this movie, more than the others, that the characters were a match for Poirot and brought the same amount of presence as Branagh – no mean feat, considering he’s one of the better actors alive. While you may not know the names of the rest of the cast, each character is distinct and brings something different to the table. Even the doctor’s son is a great character – it’s hard to make child actors appealing, especially in today’s movies.
If I have complaints about the film, the perpetrator of the crime is too easy to solve, and the red herrings the story offers don’t hold water. Part of the fun of watching these movies is guessing who the villain is, and, in this movie, it’s too obvious for me to ignore. Again, I’ve seen more than my fair share of mysteries, so maybe that’s not a fair critique, but it is what it is – I can’t unknow a lifetime of movie watching. When you put your eggs in a single basket, which most mysteries do, if it’s not compelling enough, if the audience can clue in immediately on who the murderer is, it slows the movie’s pace, as we’re all waiting for the reveal we’re expecting. In A Haunting in Venice, I was waiting a bit.
My other criticism involves the use of the supernatural in the movie. The film straddles admitting the existence of spirits and working hard to debunk that idea. When something weird does happen, you’re not sure if the movie is going to call bullshit on itself or not. It’s a bizarre flex and one that I think Branagh should have taken a firmer stand on. I didn’t find the supernatural angle compelling enough to care one way or the other, but the movie goes to pains to debate it, which is a waste.
For those who are sensitive to child abuse, I frankly advise you to give second thoughts to seeing this movie. The story behind the house in the movie is grim, and one sequence, in particular, is not afraid to show something unnerving that might turn some people off. My mother saw the movie with me, and she couldn’t even watch that part.
As for the soundtrack – what soundtrack? If you’re looking for memorable tunes, give this movie a pass. Now that I think of it, I can’t recall what music even sounded like. I remember a couple of music cues for jump scares, but I didn’t fall for those. This movie isn’t scary, though some people would disagree.
Overall, the movie is fun, features a fine cast, lavish sets, and a good atmosphere. I’m still not a staunch fan of these movies, but if Branagh does another one and makes it like this one, I may become one.