If you find yourself staring longingly at the sweaters in your closet, begging for that bead of sweat running down your spine to be transformed into an autumnal chill instead, then Kenneth Branagh’s A Haunting in Venice—the third and by far best of his Hercule Poirot murder mystery films, based off of the books by Agatha Christie—should do the trick. Utilizing all the foggy, damp atmosphere that Venice, Italy can muster, this film is much slighter than Branagh’s previous stabs and it’s all the better for it—simple, elegant, fun, to the point. Where “the point” is a variety of sharp implements used for most diabolical purposes, of course.
Branagh’s previous Poirot movies—those would be Murder on the Orient Express in 2017 and Death on the Nile in 2022, natch—made mustache-loads of moolah at the box office. But they were also accused critically (by those with the correct opinions, anyway) of being bloated misshapen catastrophes—vapid parades of costumes and casting tricks without any meat on their gold-embossed bones. While it can be definitively said that it’s never precisely a bad time to just hang out with Judi Dench and Penélope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer and Olivia Colman and Willem Dafoe and on and on and on, all dripping in elaborate period costuming while posing in front of magnificent scenery, the movies were far too long and far too crowded to stick.
You can spot the difference right up front with A Haunting in Venice (which is based on Christie’s 1969 story “Hallowe’en Party”) when scanning the film’s cast list. There are a grand total of three “names” supporting Branagh’s mustache-laden Poirot this time out—Tina Fey as the mystery author (and Christie stand-in) Ariadne Oliver; Michelle Yeoh as the well-coiffed clairvoyant Mrs. Reynolds; and dreamy Jamie Dornan playing the sad-eyed and longing Dr. Leslie Ferrier. And in a call-back to Branagh’s previous film Belfast, Ferrier’s son Leo is played by Jude Hill, who also played Dornan’s son there (we can’t quite call Hill a “name” just yet—apologies to all of you Belfast-heads out there).
Also in attendance is Kelly Reilly—an actress whose face is no doubt familiar to you as she’s been in a billion things but whose name is probably just out of reach—as the hostess and former opera singer Rowena Drake. (And yes these are movies that can have characters be named “Rowena Drake” and be described as “former opera singers,” bless them.) Rowena Drake is the one who has brought everybody together under her mildewy, dilapidated Venetian palace’s roof for this All Hallows evening’s morbid festivities. It turns out that Rowena’s daughter drowned recently in the waters right outside her bedroom window, and Rowena, overcome with grief, demands a seance to get to the bottom of it.
That answers the question of why Yeoh’s medium is in attendance. But how did Oliver the mystery writer and Poirot the (semi) retired detective end up on the guest list? Well, it turns out that was the former’s doing—Oliver, with the due diligence of any crime writer who’s obsessed with finding the false bottoms and connecting the red strings, hasn’t been able to suss out Reynolds’ precise con game. And there must be a con game, because if there isn’t, well, that’s proof of an afterlife and whatnot and something it would be nice to pin down if possible. So Ariadne has enlisted her old friend Hercule to come help her poke a cane through the cobwebs. (Why the deeply in-mourning mother would agree to all of these shenanigans happening as she attempts to communicate with her dead daughter is a question best left un-poked-at, I suppose.)
Add on Dornan as the love-struck doctor, Hill as his bookish son, and a few other less-familiar-faced stragglers (a nurse, a cop, a couple of common swindlers), and then trap them all in a crumbling, claustrophobic manor that seems to be descending into its own watery tomb with every step—the production design on this one is 100% best in show. And wham bam alakazam, before you know it the bodies start dropping almost as fast as the criss-crossing motives for same.
Besides the smaller cast and the single location, the thing that best separates A Haunting in Venice from its exhausting predecessors is its exceptional, spooky atmosphere—the wet cobblestones, the masked mid-century children’s parties. An endless game of peering down pitch-black hallways that are framed on all sides by spiderwebs and dust. Bobbing for apples and creaking floorboards covering up skeletons and eons of secrets. These are indeed a few of our favorite things! This is a movie where Vincent Price would have been very much at home, wearing satin and velvet and half a shadow cast across his grinning face, and we live for that vibe, profoundly and truly. It feels like Branagh managed to re-establish a connection back to his terrific 1991 flick Dead Again—it’s all vibes and locked doors and hysteria, oh my.
It doesn’t all work. A mystery’s only as good as its, you know, mystery. Even the slightest affinity for deduction will have you seeing this story’s end-game by at least the film’s midpoint. If not quicker still. Granted it has a couple of balls in the air, obscuring one with the other, but the whittled-down cast presents a whittled-down suspect list alongside it and if one simply glances at what’s being withheld… well, we’ll let you poke your own cane into those cobwebs yourselves. And one does appreciate that sense of simplicity again—okay, yes, we know the story. But there’s fun to be had in how the story’s being told.
Branagh dials his Poirot way down this go-round—in Venice to stew in depression and solitude (as one does), even his infamous mustache seems less aggressive. It feels as if Branagh realized the battle of the over-the-top gumshoes has been game-set-matched by the Foghorn-Leghorn-isms of Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, and so he performance-wise burrowed for something more introspective. It might not work against grander settings but here, amid these water-logged ruins, it just feels correct and right. Happily, that side-step of his allows Yeoh to go grande dame in his stead, and she has a grande time doing just that. It’s always fun to see a deserving, recent Oscar winner get to do a goofy victory lap, and that’s exactly what this is. She’s a prize.
I wish the same could be said of Tina Fey—knowing what an important presence the Christie-adjacent character of Ariadne Oliver is to the Poirot books, it would’ve been fun for her to nail it down here and give us something to look forward to in possible further chapters. But to bastardize the phrase “a face for radio,” Fey has a performance style for the writers’ room. She’s just not good. Unable to thread the needle between human and ham, she vacillates between His Girl Friday rat-a-tat cosplay and cardboard inexpressiveness, very nearly sinking every moment of import her character is handed.
But those are only mild sour grapes in a movie that’s otherwise spirited enough to savor. Big vibes, it’s got big vibes as they say, and it’s not afraid to use ‘em. So if you’re in the right mood, straining for all that pumpkin spice about to be, grab a hold. Let the perfectly timed lightning and thunder strike; let the floors give way to sodden basements and to sabres unsheathed. It’s a grand time in Venice for horrible wonderful Hallowe’en-time. And we’re all, dead alive or otherwise, gladly invited.