A Haunting in Venice (2023) Review
DEATH IS JUST THE BEGINNING…
In 2017, actor / director Kenneth Branagh brought the classic and beloved murder mystery drama of novelist Agatha Christie to the silver screen with the release of Murder on the Orient Express. Directed and starring in the lead role by Branagh himself, the film, which also had the talents of Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench amongst several others, followed the exploits of one eccentric, yet super sleuth detective Hercule Poirot as he pieces together a murder case that occurred upon the Orient Express train. While this wasn’t the first adaptation Christie’s famed, this version of Murder on the Orient Express boasted a solid cast and the production value and, while some drew criticism on the feature’s screenplay and sluggish pacing, the film still managed to collect over $350 million at the global box office against its $55 million production budget. This was enough for the studio at the time (20th Century Fox) to move forward with a follow-up adventure of Christie’s Poirot detective, with 2022’s Death on the Nile being released several years later. With the movie following yet another mystery surrounding the death of a wealth heiress on her honeymoon trip in Egypt, Branagh himself returned to both directing and starring as Poirot was once again, with his co-stars Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, and Letita Wright filling out the supporting characters in the movie. Death on the Nile received mixed reviews from critics and moviegoers, with the film grossing $137 million at the box office worldwide against its production budget of $90 million. Now, a year after the release of last film, 20th Century Fox and returning director Kenneth Branagh return to the classic tale of an old-fashioned murder mystery capper with the release of A Haunting in Venice. Does this latest Hercule Poirot tale follow the clues to its satisfying ending, or does it spooky nuances become a distraction from Christie’s famous detective story?
Ten years after solving the murder case of heiress Linnet Ridgeway in Egypt, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is retired, trying to find solace and peace of mind within the comforts of Venice, Italy, protected by manservant bodyguard Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who keeps the public away as they beg for assistance from the famous detective. Breaking through his solitude is Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a popular mystery novelist who is stuck in a rut with her recent releases and looking for new inspiration, pulling Poirot into a nearby Halloween visit to the nearby venetian villa of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), a retired opera singer who is looking to hold a séance, attempting to reach “the other side” and contact her daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who suddenly died a short time ago. Skeptical, Poirot is a non-believer in the supernatural, joined by Ariadne, who’s hoping for something “special” to happen, but strangeness arrives with Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a known medium who is confident in her psychic abilities, ready to connect the great beyond and locate Rowena’s daughter. During her ritual ceremony, Reynolds achieves her goal, but Poirot plans to debunk the performance as a setup. However, such motives are tested when a dead body is soon after discovered, inspiring the detective to lock down the villa and learn more about the partygoers, including Alicia’s ex-fiancé Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Rowena’s housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), Rowena’s family doctor Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), and several others, and their personal motives.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Borrowing my lines from my review of Death on the Nile, I will be the first admit that I loved Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. Of course, like many out there, I knew a vague understand of Christie’s classic murder mystery novel, with the tale being told having that iconic pop-culture reference. Despite that, however, I really didn’t know the actual story of the Orient Express, with maybe the exception of Hercule Poirot, Christie’s Belgian eccentric detective. Looking past all of that, I do like a good murder mystery, especially one that has that classical feeling of “old school murder mystery” feeling throughout as well as having that visual aesthetics of a period piece drama. Thus, the combination of all that works in Branagh’s favor with his 2017 remake film of the beloved murder mystery novel. I did see the original 1974 film, with actor Albert Finney as Poirot, but I did see it after watching Branagh’s version. Of the two, I think that Branagh was slightly better, which is mostly due to the more diverse cast that fill out the “suspected” supporting players of the story as well as the stylish production quality in updated filmmaking cinematics. Still, I did feel that the new movie didn’t bring much difference from the 1974 version, which I understand why several people had mixed opinions on this new iteration. Altogether, I think what Branagh did with Christie’s narrative is something cinematic / technical great and perhaps one of the main reasons why I found his interpretation of Murder on the Orient Express to be enjoyable and entertaining to watch every now and again.
Of course, I was excited to see Death on the Nile to see Branagh returning to play Poirot again, but, while I was expecting to see the film come out a year or two after the 2017 Orient Express, the film was delayed several times, with one being Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox (shuffling scheduled releases) as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, which further delayed the project until 2022. So, when I did finally get to see the movie, I enjoyed it. Of course, my thoughts on this follow-up sequel were better than most, but I still found that it was a bit inferior to its predecessor. Perhaps it was because of the sluggish pacing in the first half and that the actual “murder mystery” aspect of the feature doesn’t really start until halfway throughout the feature. Still, for better or worse, Death on the Nile managed to be entertaining, especially since I love Branagh coming back to play Poirot and I did like the ensemble cast for this project.
This brings me around to talking about A Haunting in Venice, a 2023 murder mystery drama and the follow-up sequel to both Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. To be quite honest, I wasn’t expecting a Branagh’s Poirot to make a return, especially with the “lukewarm” reception that the last movie received. So, I was quite surprised when the third Hercule Poirot film from Branagh was announced sometime after the release of Death on the Nile, with (of course) Branagh himself returning to participate in front and behind the camera once again as well as the cast involved in the upcoming feature, including Fey, Dorman, Hill, Reilly, and Yeoh just to name a few. After the film was announced, I really didn’t hear much about this movie until the film’s movie trailer began to appear online and in theaters (during the “coming attractions preview). From the preview alone, the movie definitely looked enticing, but perhaps the biggest (and most striking) was the introduction of a more “horror” style elements that was being showcased. It was a somewhat of departure from the previous two films and one that I felt could “make or break” the new film. It wasn’t unheard of, but something bold. And I kind of liked that idea. So, I was excited to see A Haunting in Venice when it was set to be released on September 15th, 2023. Unfortunately, I was out of the country on vacation when this movie first opened up, so I did have to wait a few weeks to get to see this movie. Now, with my schedule “back to normal” I am ready to share what I thought of this latest Hercule Poirot movie. And what did I think of it? Well, I actually liked it. Despite some limitations that the movie is structured, A Haunting in Venice is still an engaging endeavor, with special attention from its visual style and horror-like elements as well as in its solid cast all the way around. It’s not the best of the three Branagh directed and starred murder mystery cappers, but it’s definitely an improvement from the 2022 release….and that’s a good thing.
As mentioned, A Haunting in Venice sees the return of Kenneth Branagh to the directing chair for the project as well as the lead protagonist of the feature. I’ll mention his acting in the movie and little further down in my review. For now, let’s talk about the directing portion of Branagh. For those who don’t know, Branagh has dabbled in film directing for quite some time. Not just only helming 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, but also other notable projects like Hamlet, Thor, and Cinderella. Thus, the credibility of the Branagh’s direction is sound. Well, maybe not 2020’s Artemis Fowl, but we don’t talk about that movie. For this film, Branagh seems quite focused at the task at hand and jumps right into the main plot of the feature. This, of course, is a much improvement made from Death on the Nile that had its first act feel very elongated and slowly plodding away through characters and events before actually getting to the main plot of the tale. Branagh seems to realize the problems with the previous installments and approaches A Haunting in Venice with a much better sense of what’s important to the main story and sort of “jumps” right into the plotting of the tale after a brief introductions sequence. Thus, majority of the movie feels like its part of the “murder mystery” aspect rather than “setting up” characters and their motives. To be sure, those said character motivations are still present and play out as one would expect in this type of genre presentation, but it’s a bit more refined and pulled together with a tighter feel, which is a good thing for both Branagh’s talent as a director and for the film itself.
One of the more interesting nuances that Branagh utilizes in A Haunting in Venice is to play up more of the horror style elements within the feature’s presentation and overall thematic tone of the tale. As mentioned above, this particular projection was somewhat of a departure from the previous two films, which were lighter in tone (beyond the murder portion) and felt more like a period piece drama. In this movie, Branagh still has those moments where the costumed period piece efforts are still in use (mostly bookending the feature), but the overall “mood” of the feature has a more foreboding and ominous feeling; something that can be find in horror movie. Sudden twists and turns and several darker shadowing and lightening definitely play a part of the movie’s visual presentation, which definitely plays up the “spooky” aspect of the feature, especially since the story involves a murder on Halloween night. It definitely works as Branagh creates an atmospheric film that still retains all the fundamentals of a murder mystery drama, yet also generates enough scary / brooding motifs and aesthetics to keep the narrative’s presentation unsettling (by design) as well as a great setup for the events that unfold. Plus, I do have to mention that the overall “scary” elements aren’t exactly frightening, so those who don’t like horror movies can rest assure that the movie isn’t filled with terror violence or gory blood. Again, it’s more atmospheric in its thematic tones.
One particular aspect that I liked about what Branagh does is make the film feel accessible to all, even if one has never watched the previous two installments that preceded this one. While Orient Express and Death on the Nile introduces Poirot (and his inane quirks), A Haunting in Venice doesn’t require a prerequisite necessity to view those two endeavors to fully enjoy this film. Yes, maybe a little bit of backstory of his character is needed, new viewers can easily “catch up” quickly on what Branagh wants to project and convey in this detective sleuth and his ability to “sniff out” the mystery that lies before. Thus, the accessibility of the movie is palpable and easy to digest without prior knowledge of the first two Poirot endeavors by Branagh. Overall, I felt that the movie was pretty good, with Branagh staging a more focused narrative that’s both familiar and unfamiliar, especially with the “moodier” nature of mystery and murder detective work.
For its presentation, A Haunting in Venice does exceptionally well for its usage of background visual aesthetics and setting to “set the stage” for the narrative’s locale and primary centerpiece. Interestingly, the movie itself is very much so a “low budget”, especially in comparing the previous two, but that doesn’t mean that the film’s setting has to be sacrificed, with the backdrop placement of Venice, Italy. While production took place in Pinewood Studios, the film did shoot sequences in Venice, which was used as the primary stetting for the story and this notion help encapsulate the venetian visual look and style aesthetics. Plus, as mentioned above, the interior shots of halls, rooms, and corridors also played a part in the feature (almost like a character unto itself) and definitely provide plenty of nerving feeling against the faded / tarnish luxury of the decrepit Italian villa. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” key players, which includes Susanna Codognato, Peter Russell, and Chris Stephenson (art direction), John Paul Kelly (production design), Celia Bobak (set decorations), Sammy Sheldon (costume design), and Lucy Donaldson (editing), for their efforts in bringing this movie’s visual background aesthetics and nuances to cinematic life. As such, the film’s cinematography work by Haris Zambarloukos is solid across the board, with plenty of dramatic shots, angles, and shadowing that help build upon the setting’s horror-esque atmospheric appeal and presentation, including long and narrow corridors and claustrophobic rooms / holdings. Also, it seems like recent movies of late have utilized some great sound editing / mixing within their endeavors, with A Haunting in Venice being another prime example of this noteworthy post film editing practice by using many sound effects and overlap utilization to make the scenes come alive through such mystery and foreboding. Lastly, the score for the picture, which was composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, is also another vital component in the movie’s presentation, with the composition boasting that “moody” feeling that keeps one’s attention heightened through moments of mystery and intrigue as well as character dialogue driven scenes.
Unfortunately, A Haunting in Venice does have a few elements that hold the feature back from being the best Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot installment. How so? Well, for starters, the movie sort feels quite predictable and formulaic. This, of course, was a problem with the previous two entries that Branagh helmed, but that mostly comes with the territory of doing a murder mystery project. Yes, the familiar (even to the uninitiated of a Hercule Poirot film) can see the classic tropes and cliches that are customary for a murder mystery plot. Introduction to a slew of ambiguous individuals, an unexpected murder, suspicion around every turn, the obvious culprit who turns not to be the killer, and so on and so forth. It’s definitely been done many times before in similar stories. Thus, while the story is still engaging, the movie itself does breed a lot of familiarity within its murder mystery tropes and formulaic nature. Again, it sort of comes with the territory, especially in adapting a tale from Agatha Christie (the cornerstone of murder mystery stories), so it didn’t bother me as much. However, there are moments where that familiar overtones and cliches do stick out a bit and it would’ve been nice to see Branagh “shake things up” in the overall flow of A Haunting in Venice.
Another problem that I noticed with the movie is some of the “jump scares” moments that are scattered throughout, which do seem slightly out of place. Of course, it helps build up some of the tension in some of the scenes as well as the horror style elements, but comes a bit off-putting to use such tactics. Luckily, the film isn’t like modern horror flicks of late and only uses a handful of “jump scare” tactics here and there and not overstaying their welcome. Also, I felt like some of the narrative beats fell a bit empty-handed in a few crucial areas. Of course, each of the side characters, especially the “suspect” characters, have their own moments to shine and backstory components to fill out this “whodunit” mystery, yet there is still some incompleteness to the tale being told. With so many characters running in and out of the spotlight, I definitely can see why the script, which was adapted from Christie’s work by Michael Green, finds a struggle to juggle some many characters properly, especially since many are presented rather quickly and bunched together. I think this is where the film’s script making could’ve been “beefed up” and give a better understanding of who these people are, spending more time within their backstory. In conjunction with that, the film’s conclusion feels a bit rushed, with the overall “aftermath” conclusion to A Haunting in Venice. Once the culprit is caught and unmasked, the wrapping-up the feature notion seems a bit hurried to a certain degree and doesn’t leave a strong, lasting impression as much as I excepting it to be. Thus, I kind of wished the ending of the film would’ve had a better understanding of bring closure to the main narrative in a better way. Heck, even the ending for Death on the Nile offered a better closing statement to Poirot and the murders that took place within its aftermath segment. A Haunting in Venice, while good, still leaves a linger “meh” within its final five or so minutes.
What helps elevate some of the criticism is that the cast for A Haunting in Venice is up to the task to make their respective characters come alive, with a mixture of such boldness and subtlety to make their performances work. Of course, as mentioned above, some characters are limited in their screen time, so their personalities and backstory aren’t completely fleshed out beyond their dubious “murder mystery” duplicity, but the acting talent involved certainly helps motive those points to make them enjoy and engaging to watch. Much like the other Poirot films, none shine more (and the best) in the entire project than Kenneth Branagh himself, who once again steps in the role of detective super sleuth Hercule Poirot. Known for his roles in Wallander, Hamlet, and Henry V, Branagh has always been considered a very “classical trained” actor, who relishes the chance to play such dynamic and complex characters with plenty of theatrical gusto and “substance” to the role. Playing a character like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is definitely right up Branagh’s alley of thespian nuances and theatrically boldness, which is why he has played the character previously in both Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. So, to see him return once again to the meticulous and methodically thinking character of Hercule Poirot is a delight treat to be sure. Heck, I don’t think many people would see this movie if not for Branagh’s performance as Agatha Christie’s famed detective. Like before, Branagh easily slides back into the shoes of Poirot and certainly doesn’t miss a beat by making sure to play up all the quirks and inane tactics that he’s portrayed previously. In the case of A Haunting in Venice, the movie plays up the more practical and pragmatic ways that Poirot is known for while trying to solve a case, which butts heads against the more paranormal and supernatural elements that are in play. It’s a classic nuance of believers vs. non-believer character arc that, while not the most original, has been proven to work and does so with Poirot, who faces more than just the case at hand, but also seeing if he seeing truth or something else.
Perhaps the only aspect that I felt a bit disappointed with Branagh’s Poirot is that the movie doesn’t delve into any type of additional backstory material into the film. While this character nuance is just a minor one, the past two films hint around Poirot’s past, including his time serving in WWI, why he grew out his thick moustache, and his relationship with Kathrine. In A Haunting in Venice, there’s little to no backstory snippets or tidbits that are explored with Poirot, which seems a bit awkward, especially since there could’ve been a lot of flashback and / or specter imagery that the movie could’ve utilized in many of the film’s horror-esque scenes. To me, it’s a missed opportunity. Regardless, Branagh’s return as Hercule Poirot is still quite magnificent and continues to be the “beating heart” of these classic whodunit mystery cappers.
Who plays as almost a “co-lead” in the movie alongside Branagh’s Poirot would have to be actress Tina Fey as Poirot’s friend and crime mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver. Known for her roles in 30 Rock, Sisters, and Date Night, Fey is more accustomed to doing comedic performances throughout her career and have made a special niche for her placement in that category. So, to see her participate in a period piece murder mystery endeavor does seem like an odd choice, especially starring opposite someone like Kenneth Branagh. Surprisingly, however, Fey actually does a pretty good job in the movie and definitely meshes well with Branagh’s Poirot. Of course, one can argue that her character of Ariadne Oliver is merely a character for Poirot to bounce off thoughts and ideas throughout the narrative (much like Tom Bateman’s Bouc from the previous two installments), but Fey certainly knows how to handle herself in the movie and comes off as a slick American female within her character and makes for a compelling “sidekick” character against Branagh’s Poirot.
The other notable supporting characters in the movie, such as actress Kelly Reilly (Yellowstone and Pride & Prejudice) as retired opera singer and Alicia’s mother Rowena Drake, actor Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey and Belfast) as Rowena’s family doctor who is suffering from PTSD Dr. Leslie Ferrier, and actress Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians and Everything Everywhere all at Once) as fame and suspicious psychic medium Joyce Reynolds, give some great character performances, with the respective talent utilizing their screen presence the correct way. These characters felt like there could’ve been more to them as if there development was expanded upon in an earlier draft for the feature, but was trimmed down for a final print. Still, for better or worse, these characters are quite effective. Also, I do have to give a special mention to young actor Jude Hill (Belfast and Magpie Murders), who delivers a very convincing and compelling character performance as Dr. Ferrier’s mature son Leopold Ferrier.
The rest of the cast, including actress Camille Cottin (Stillwater and House of Gucci) as Rowena’s housekeeper Olga Seminoff, actor Kyle Allen (West Side Story and All My Life) as Alicia Drake’s ex-fiancé Maxime Gerard, actor Riccardo Scamarcio (John Wick: Chapter 2 and Burnt) as former police officer and Poirot’s bodyguard Vitale Portfoglio, and Ali Khan (The School for Good and Evil and Red Rose) and actress Emma Laird (Mayor of Kingstown and The Crowded Room) as half brother and sister / Reynold’s assistants Nicholas and Desdemona Holland make up the remaining “suspect” players in the movie. While not as palpable as the characters mentioned above, each one of these characters do get their moment in the spotlight, with the acting talent delivering some solid performances. Lastly, even though shown in flashback snippets in the movie, I do have to say that actress Rowan Robinson (The Fight in the Dog and Gym) does a pretty decent job in playing the part of Alicia Drake, Rowena’s recently deceased daughter.
Retired from the spotlight, Hercule Poirot’s faith is tested when a murder is committed, and he must trust his instincts against suspicious suspects and supernatural paranoia in the movie A Haunting in Venice. Director Kenneth Branagh’s latest film sees the actor / director return to playing the famous detective super sleuth and delivers another classic iteration of murder mystery that’s one part drama and one part atmospheric of spooky thrills within the venetian setting. While the movie does stumble in some of his predictable nature that comes with the territory of the genre as well as some underdeveloped areas in plot and character (due to its limited scope), but the film still manages to rise above those parts, with special details thanks to Branagh’s direction, a great visual presentation, some good horror tones and thematic nuances, and a solid cast across the board. Personally, I liked this movie. Yes, it definitely had its limitation in both scope and storytelling elements as well as trying to juggle some of its side characters properly, but I felt it was an improvement made from Death on the Nile for a more compounded narrative and a tighter presentation all the way around for a more effective “whodunit” yarn. Much like before, the movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but merely refines it, which is a good thing in my book. I think that Murder on the Orient Express is still the best of the three, while this movie is better than Death on the Nile. Thus, my recommendation for this movie would be a solid and favorable “recommended”, especially those who were a fan of the first two movies as well as those who crave that particular “murder mystery” angle in their cinematic viewings. The future for Branagh’s Hercule Poirot is left open-ended, much like the character at the end of the movie, with the possibility left elusive. Will Branagh adapt another Agatha Christie novel or will this film wrap up the endeavor as trilogy style structure. Who knows….only time will tell. Yet, I for one, would love to see another movie. Regardless of if one materializes or not, A Haunting in Venice is still an entertaining watch and takes a familiar (yet differentially bold) path through the classic capper of murder, suspicious, and betrayal within the cinematic visual work of one quirky Belgian detective who is known to the world as Hercule Poirot.
3.9 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: September 15th, 2023
Reviewed On: October 14th, 2023
A Haunting in Venice is 107 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing images, and thematic elements