- 20th Century Studios
In 1991, Kenneth Branagh—fresh off the multi-Oscar-nominated success of his debut feature Henry V, which had people talking about him as the new Olivier—did exactly the opposite of what you'd expect from a filmmaker if he were trying to establish a "brand" as a serious and respectable Shakespearean dramatist. He made Dead Again, a lurid detective yarn-cum-ghost story full of daytime-drama plot staples like amnesia and crazy plot twists.
It was delightfully glossy genre fare, certainly indicative of Branagh's career-long propensity for imprinting his movies with stylish flourishes, but never stuffy. This guy might be the second coming of Sir Larry, but he was also willing to have fun.
I couldn't help but work up a little excitement over the prospects of A Haunting in Venice, despite Branagh's two previous Hercule Poirot outings—2017's Murder on the Orient Express and last year's Death on the Nile—being disappointments. After all, he was back in the realm of Dead Again's supernatural elements—another lurid detective yarn-cum-ghost story—while trapping a bunch of characters in a dark villa in the middle of a raging storm.
In such a setting, how earnest could Branagh possibly be?
As it turns out, considerably more earnest than was even remotely necessary. He takes a full decade leap from the previous movie to 1947 post-World War II Venice, where Poirot is living in retirement, brusquely refusing to see any of the petitioners for his services as a detective. The sole exception: His old acquaintance, popular mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), invites Poirot to a Halloween night séance at the home of operatic soprano Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), whose daughter committed suicide a year earlier.
Ariadne wants assistance in debunking self-proclaimed medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) as a fraud, but the villa has a long history of strange occurrences—which will continue with the death of one of the evening's attendees. Branagh and writer Michael Green lay out the suspects—the dead daughter's ex-fiancé (Kyle Allen); a superstitious housekeeper (Camille Cottin); the girl's emotionally fragile doctor (Jamie Dornan); etc.—while setting up the creepy legacy of the house as a de facto prison for plague-ridden children who are now restless spirits.
The director applies to this scenario his singular gifts for never finding a potentially simple shot that he was not prepared to make at least somewhat off-kilter; every camera set-up takes us off-plumb, positioning the viewer's eye at least several inches below the characters' chins or several inches above their eyebrows. You know you're in for the "Full Branagh" when it is less than two minutes into the movie, and he has already, somehow, managed to apply an ominous Dutch angle to a flock of pigeons.
That all might have made for a wonderfully dark tale of suspense and strange apparitions, were Branagh and Green not determined to turn the Poirot mysteries into unnecessarily complicated pieces of psychodrama. It begins with Poirot himself, still played by Branagh as haunted by a past we learned about in previous films, as well as the cases he has investigated.
But Green's script is determined to insert traumatic back-stories built around the story's post-war setting wherever possible. Dornan's doctor, we learn, has been devastated by post-traumatic stress after being one of the soldiers to liberate the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen; the psychic's two assistants (Emma Laird and Ali Khan) are Romani half-siblings who spent years in hiding, and now long for a new life in America. Every time A Haunting in Venice has an opportunity to commit to the narrative's more conventionally satisfying elements, it stops to clear its throat and remind us, "You know, there's some very serious stuff going on here."
The big reveal, fortunately, gets back down to basics in its resolution, allowing crashing waves and Branagh's doom-laden shot setups to do a lot of the necessary heavy lifting. It's just a huge bummer that nobody involved seemed to grasp that a shadowy whodunnit might be better served without needing to apply a patina of respectability. The Kenneth Branagh of 30 years ago seemed to understand much better that you can take ghosts, mystery and murder, and let us be entertained by their unpretentious appeal.