What you need to know
A Haunting in Venice elevates well-worn genre tropes with exceptional casting and filmmaking flair to create a satisfying experience.
Don’t ask me why I didn’t expect a film called A Haunting in Venice to be even slightly scary. After its first jump scare, this third installment of Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptations by writer Michael Green kept me on my toes (music by Hildur Guðnadóttir). Seemingly every canted angle and darkened corner of the Venetian palazzo where the mystery unfolds has further frights in store (cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos). It’s a testament to production designer John Paul Kelly that the cobbled together set feels like one spatially coherent building.
Branagh is back as Hercule Poirot, Christie’s beloved quirky private investigator with the killer ’stache, now also a bit crusty as he’s hidden himself away in retirement, to hell with the long line of supplicants outside his door. But then an old friend comes to visit.
Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) is the American novelist who writes about Poirot’s cases and made him famous. She styles herself the better mind, calling him “the second-smartest person I know.” But sales have slumped of late, so here she is, inviting Poirot to a post–Halloween party séance, knowing that he can’t resist trying to debunk the medium as a charlatan — and hopefully getting a new bestseller out of the evening.
Fey is grand. Even when on SNL or late night talk shows, she always struck me as more than just “doing a bit.” (She studied playwriting and acting in college.) Here, she brings the wit and fast pace of 30 Rock (2006–2013) to a character with an edge, and maybe even a secret. Liz Lemon’s earnestness, too, shines forth when Poirot invites Ariadne to be his assistant on the case, and she eagerly agrees. And Fey is excellent at delivering the opening exposition in a crackling and entertaining manner. (Unfortunately, some of editor Lucy Donaldson’s breathless scene transitions also seem straight out of 30 Rock.)
In fact, the whole cast does great work, in addition to having what looks like a ball on set (casting by Lucy Bevan). It may not be as star-studded as Murder on the Orient Express (2017), but every person gives just the right performance, whether you know it at first or not. Some are showy (Kelly Reilly), some are subtle (Michelle Yeoh), and some are showily subtle (Jude Hill). In the midst of it all is Branagh, hamming it up in his faux French accent, tossing out zingers with a twitch of his mustache — he even gets to play a victim in this one. We’d expect no less of a colorful character like Poirot. The famous investigators are all kind of odd, don’t you think?
Haunting doesn’t shy away from well-worn tropes. Someone gets locked in a soundproof room “for his own safety” and dutifully dies. The police are kept out by a torrential thunderstorm. Taps are turned on but no water comes out. Freaky shit goes down in a mirror. And hovering over it all is the classic red herring: a fearsome legend about a supernatural vendetta. Yet the horror-mystery is done so well that you don’t really care.
Where the film shines is in its sense of history. Set in 1947, the story is motivated by the lingering horrors of war. Jamie Dornan’s character has what today we would call PTSD, and his monologue about what caused it is the most “haunting” part of the film. Branagh’s film is also steeped in film history, using not just genre tricks but also odd camera angles, unexpected tracking shots, and surround sound design (by Tomas Blazukas) familiar from films past. A highly symbolic cockatoo makes for a particularly Wellesian touch. I especially enjoyed a shot that pans down alongside a shroud as it spreads and lands.
Above all, the film is funny. I’m someone who doesn’t even laugh at most stand-up, let alone comedy films, yet this horror-mystery at times had me in stitches. It’s a sign of its utter competence. I’m not trying to damn with faint praise; it’s deeply saddening how few films nowadays (and perhaps in the past, too) manage to stay out of their own way to do what they set out to do. We can’t expect every film to be Pulp Fiction (1994) or The Tree of Life (2011). A Haunting in Venice satisfies.
A Haunting in Venice is in theaters.
TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)
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