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‘A Haunting in Venice’ Digital UHD (review)

Disney

I don’t normally discuss marketing in these reviews but I must make an exception here: there is no more representative aspect of the strange marriage between honed commercial instincts and classical material than the decision to present and market an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party as if it was a movie in The Conjuring franchise.

A Haunting in Venice is a good, but not great, film but it is the very best kind of film to review, because there’s so much at play here under the surface that is instructive about the state of American films in 2023.

Kenneth Branagh’s entire career as a director has been an attempt to present high-brow material in a way that resonates with a broad, commercial audience.

From his audacious, thrilling, Henry V to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein right up to his live action adaptation of Cinderella, he’s not always successful in the choices he makes but he’s clearly trying to make material that he loves as accessible as possible.

His last three films, the most recent of which being the subject of this review, are adaptations of Agatha Christie detective novels starring Branagh as her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot.

Murder on the Orient Express, which had been filmed excellently by Sidney Lumet in 1974, was first in 2017. Branagh’s strategy in that film was to simultaneously “toughen up” Christie’s dapper, vain, sleuth and make the claustrophobic mystery as visually dynamic as possible with bird’s eye angles, sweeping exteriors, and quick, frenetic, cutting. He even used a diversified cast to meditate on interwar attitudes to race and gender, a smart way to make Christie’s work feel more contemporary.

He largely expanded on those themes in the first follow up, Death on the Nile.

Playing up Poirot’s psychological origins and lavishing in Old Hollywood glamor. The film was even less beholden to the source material, and the marketing positioned Gal Gadot as the big star which must have been devilish fun for anyone who has read the book. It was largely a victim of COVID in America but found an audience internationally, and scraped itself over the finish line into profitability.

So we are treated to a third turn from Branagh as Poirot, and here we are given a number of curveballs.

First, the choice of novel for adaptation. The previous series of Poirot films moved from …Nile to Evil Under the Sun, another of Ms. Christie’s most well regarded thrillers in an exotic locale.

Here Branagh instead selected Hallowe’en Party which is generally regarded as one of the lesser Poirot novels but holds two advantages from a commercial perspective: it has a greatly reduced cast size from the first two pictures, and the so the budget would be lightened and it could be presented and marketed as a horror film for Halloween, and so the film could sneak its way into a good opening weekend, at the very least.

As an adaptation of Christie, A Haunting in Venice remains competent and even surprising in places. I especially enjoyed how the method of murder from the book is teased and discarded mere moments before the actual (much more gruesome) murder takes place. It’s as if the film is winking to fans that this is going to be a looser adaptation and just because they read the source material doesn’t mean they’ve got it in hand.

It’s now the 1950’s and Branagh’s Poirot has been so spiritually exhausted by war and murder that he exists in self imposed exile in Venice, where a hired bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) keeps away well wishers and those desperate for his help.

When his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) asks him to observe a seance held at a famous haunted house and try to debunk it if he can. When the medium (Michelle Yeoh) communicates that the spirit of a girl who had previously resided there knows who her killer is, she winds up dead and Poirot is forced back into action to determine who among the assembled is the killer.

I think this is the best of the three adaptations by far, and it still shocks me to type that. Branagh’s cinematic instincts: his unusual shot selection and supercharged style which all felt distracting to me in his previous two films, feel right at home here because he’s trying to create an environment of unease and fear rather than one of sober detection or retro chic. There are shots in the first act of this film that feel so gothic and expressionistic that I had to appreciate what I was seeing, even if I thought what I was hearing was off.

That dovetails nicely into casting where I think almost everyone does a spectacular job.

Michelle Yeoh brings real menace to her brief part in the film: the film wisely leaves it completely up to the audience whether she’s for real at all or just flim-flam and her early showdown with Poirot sees her bounce between the two extremes freely before she nearly gets him killed. It’s another great performance in a career run of them, and whoever thought of using her for this sinister role was way ahead of the curve because I was shocked at how well she fit in. Scamarcio is fine in a thankless role, and I think Jamie Dornan plays against type admirably.

What heartened me the most was, for all the fake jump scares and PG-13 horror ambiance, this movie gets right to the heart of the classical detective story and why it was great.

Poirot, at the story’s opening, has become disconnected from the humanity of being a detective. He’s too mad at God, mad at people, mad at the world, and mad at himself that he cannot change things. In a murder mystery, the crime itself is a wound in the fabric of a society of people that the detective must mend by revealing all secrets and assigning blame. This allows the classic detective story to be a cross section for how the author views the whole world– it keeps it vital and relevant and not just an abstract puzzle. Poirot doubts ghosts, not because he is playing an intellectual game, but because he has given up on God.

Extras include a featurette and deleted scenes.

This film represents symbolic resurrection and reconnection to the humanity in your gifts with renewed faith that you can do good in the world. For a film as compromised in certain ways for the sake of commerce, it’s pleasing to see Branagh get right to the core of the humanity of the character.

Recommended.

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