Not since Peter Ustinov repeatedly played the famed Belgian detective of the little grey cells have so many convincing films been adapted from Agatha Christie’s novels. Not until Kenneth Branagh’s own Hercule Poirot came along, that is. And while Ustinov appeared in made-for-TV, mostly muted and unambitious movies, Branagh has had full studio backing to convey his ambitious portrayals. With the latest such adaptation, A Haunting in Venice (loosely based on the late-stage Poirot novel Hallowe’en Party), Branagh’s third in the director’s chair and in front of the camera, the thespian cements his status as the definitive Christie whisperer of the 21st century.
The plot of many of Christie’s works is unimportant—and they are, of course, everything. You can imagine rough contours. A doctor, a maid, an inheritance, creepy children. In this iteration, Poirot is retired but invited to a palatial estate in Venice. There he encounters a mysterious woman, Joyce Reynolds, who portends to be a medium. She is played by the recently Oscar-feted Michelle Yeoh with delightful defiance of Poirot’s skepticism. The point of Poirot is that he is pedantic and insufferable—this is, after all, how Christie herself viewed in her own love/hate relationship with her legendary detective. Branagh and Yeoh ping-pong perfectly off each other to make the point.
The original invitation came from Poirot’s friend, the author Ariadne Oliver (who Agatha Christie always denied basing on herself), played here by Tina Fey. Oliver has her own motivations, naturally, but then again so do all the other people who attend the party and later the critical séance. There is Olga, our hostess played by Camille Cottin and whose late daughter plays a pivotal role. She previously had the heart of Dr. Leslie Ferrier, played by a delightfully aging Jamie Dornan, in his second Branagh collaboration after the Oscar-winning Belfast. A Haunting in Venice actually reunites the Shades of Grey actor with the child star Jude Hill, who played Dornan’s son in the drama about the Irish troubles and does so again in this movie.
This being a picture studio, no expenses are spared, and the money spent is in the good hands of a masterful modern director. Perhaps most notable is that Oscar winner Hildur Guonadottir composes the score—a far cry perhaps from her celebrated Joker soundtrack, but maybe not so. The music keeps the proceedings tense and far darker than the slightly more jovial Orient Express and Death on the Nile were. Branagh shifts the tone more into the supernatural and the macabre—neither of which are really Agatha Christie styles, but which seem to somehow fit to make the ancient Belgian detective seem more modern. Similarly, shadowy cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos adds to the significantly darkened proceedings, and it is only Branagh’s jovial depiction and the other actors’ borderline campy portrayals that keep the film from fully devolving into sinister.
One of the central conceits of Christie’s work was the notion that anyone, absolutely any single person, could be evil and capable of murder. She was fascinated by British ennui and stuffiness, by non-British people who inherently seemed foreign and even strange to her. She was interested in the motivations of love or riches that drove people to kill. Of these three motifs, only the last one survives in Brannagh’s modern depiction of Poirot. In today’s world and in his version of the films, foreignness is something that gets celebrated, with efforts made to further diversify the cast and ensure that non-Brits play more important, non-cliched roles (witness: Yeoh). Nor does Michael Green’s script – neither for this nor the prior films – really demonstrate any interest in what makes people tick. In 2023, audiences are far more interested in salacious romance, murder, and quirky jokes than anything else. Green and Branagh deliver, but it is for the best, as these classical stories should not be lost to the dustbin of ancient history. The job they do at adapting such old tales to make them somewhat accessible to modern audiences should, in fact, be commended, and A Haunting in Venice solidly continues that trend.
Pure mystery lovers will ultimately be pleased and also disappointed as the plot unfolds. As Christie canonized, everyone has a turn being a suspect, and the misdirection is purposefully obvious at first, to hide other misdirection. Poirot has encounters with danger supposedly meant for another, but you know what is really afoot. At the same time, the ultimate revelation is not anywhere as stunning or complex as it is in the prior two films that this director has made. There are two others out there (And Then There Were None, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) but adapting those to the big screen may be well impossible. Again, Brannagh really should be commended for making these films as accessible as they are.
It is a great big cliché in movie criticism to say that the film is not as good as the book. In the context of Agatha Christie film adaptations, the comparison is even less logical. Her books are about humans, and all adaptations have been about the action. The great ones, including the Peter Ustinov ones, have additionally succeeded in having a particular kind of feeling that becomes a thread among the many adaptations. For Ustinov, for example, it was the strict adherence to the countryside milieu. For Kenneth Branagh, by contrast, it is the unapologetic studio style—bigger, bolder, more costumes, more production, more effects, more music. A Haunting in Venice continues that trend, which means that the Irish director has already succeeded in leaving his mark in the canon of Christie novel adaptations.
A Haunting in Venice comes to theaters on September 15, 2023 via 20th Century Studios.