(L-R): Riccardo Scamarcio as Vitale Portfoglio, Camille Cottin as Olga Seminoff, Jude Hill as Leopold Ferrier, Tina Fey as Ariadne Oliver, Kelly Reilly as Rowena Drake, Emma Laird as Desdemona Holland, Ali Khan as Nicholas Holland, and Kyle Allen as Maxime Gerard in 20th Century Studios' A HAUNTING IN VENICE. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

A Haunting in Venice Sees Kenneth Branagh Craft a Very Different Poirot Tale: A Supernatural Thriller

Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green made a canny choice in deciding to adapt one of Agatha Christie’s lesser-known works for A Haunting in Venice. Although, to call it an adaptation is a stretch as it is a near complete reworking of 1969’s ‘Hallowe’en Party’ with characters changing age, motivation, and of course, location. Somewhat tied by the strictures of filming versions of Christie’s oft adapted and best-known novels Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, Branagh’s previous Poirot efforts were hampered by the expectations that come with re-telling a tale so recognisable that any deviation from the source material or other versions came off as slightly ludicrous (the story of Poirot’s famous moustache being an example). A Haunting in Venice is in essence a tabula rasa for Branagh and Green to craft a very different Poirot tale, a supernatural thriller.

It is 1947 and world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has retired to Venice and with the assistance of his bodyguard Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio) ignores pleas from officials and locals alike to investigate crime. That changes when his friend, the bestselling mystery author, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) arrives at his door bearing an apple and asks for his help solving a mystery she cannot. The mystery is not a crime per se, rather she wants him to prove that a spiritualist medium is genuine. Reluctantly dragged along to an All Hallow’s Eve party at a crumbling palazzo – “Every house in Venice is either haunted or cursed,” Portfoglio tells Poirot and Oliver – the detective soon becomes involved in a case that is part whodunnit and part gothic melodrama.

The palazzo in question belongs to a once famous opera singer, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) and was home to children who died during the plague. The party begins as an event for orphaned children and will conclude with a séance conducted by Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) who has been hired to contact the grieving Rowena’s recently deceased young adult daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson). Also present are a shell-shocked doctor, Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his son Leopold (Jude Hill) who have been living with the Drakes both before and after Alicia’s death. Added to the mix is housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), Alicia’s ex-fiancé Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen) and Joyce’s Romany assistants, siblings Desdemona and Nicholas Holland (Emma Laird and Ali Khan).

The setup is baroque and disorienting as the story becomes a haunted house mystery. The production design is particularly handsome and the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos uses every conceivable angle to create a tense and claustrophobic mood. Not only is the palazzo a baroque ruin, there are the mists of Venice to contend with and an ominous storm. As a tonal work A Haunting in Venice manages to convince with masked revellers, dark corners, moments of madness, and portents of evil; all assisted by Hildur Gudnadottir’s strident score.

While A Haunting in Venice is big on chills it is not a particularly complex mystery. The overcrowded suspect pool withers very quickly and there is really only one conclusion the detective can come to. One of the film’s biggest weakness is that it throws too many red herrings at characters who don’t have a particular motivation for murder. Instead, Branagh is going for an atmosphere of paranoia heightened by the ostensible supernatural events. As the source material has basically been abandoned – with the exception of blackmail, strange gardens, and children in peril, and bobbing apples – a clearer through line could have been established.

Branagh’s Poirot films have always favoured a star-studded cast to mixed results. Michelle Yeoh is reliably strong as the spiritualist who might be running a grift or might actually be able to commune with the dead. Tina Fey brings energy to her not British version of Ariadne Oliver (well known to be a Christie surrogate in the novels) as she teases her old friend and sometimes castigates him for his overbearing ego. “You don’t have friends,” she tells Poirot, “You have admirers.” It’s a particularly cold line from the character considering Poirot loses friends regularly. He is an arrogant character and even Christie could not stand him (much like Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes), but Branagh’s Poirot has mellowed and is far less concerned with showboating. Fey also brings a lot of humour to her character with quick and snappy quips. She might not seem like a natural choice for Oliver, but she works.

Less successful is Jamie Dornan as the war traumatised doctor. As he tries to explain the horrors of Belsen the audience feels he is not up to the task. Jude Hill as his son (one again after Belfast) is perhaps one of the few child characters created for a Christie work who isn’t blithe and foolish. The young actor brings a great deal to the sensitive, intelligent E.A. Poe obsessed Leopold. Sadly, Kelly Reilly does not convince as Rowena Drake, whereas Camille Cottin is a quiet force.

What Branagh and Green craft is less a whodunnit (although all Christie’s works are whodunnits) and more a story about multiple crises of faith post the horrors of two world wars. Branagh’s Poirot is the most restrained he has ever been, and perhaps the weariest. He has lived to see the worst of human nature on a grand scale as well as dealing with it for years as a detective. He does get a pep in his discombobulated step when revealing clues and undercovering motivations which is his natural wheelhouse. Yet, a sense of deep sadness is at the heart of his version of Poirot since Death on the Nile and it has become more visible. A Haunting in Venice addresses that logic can’t account for everything when the world has been through the illogical decision to kill millions through a recent war.

Branagh’s Poirot lacks the bonhomie of other iterations of the detective, instead he wears ennui. His personal gloom is built into the film and as the sun rises over Venice after the fateful Halloween night’s horrors one hopes that his “little grey cells” are back in business.

A Haunting in Venice is a visually striking production and more than makes for what it lacks in cohesive plotted mystery with it’s gloom laden horror-adjacent style. Thus far it is perhaps the best of Branagh’s outings as the detective, a role he is now comfortable with and has made his own, and with so many other Christie works still ripe for adaptation, one wishes him the best with the probable next one. Hopefully he continues on utilising the author’s more obscure works.

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey

Writer: Michael Green, (Based on Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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