Dame Agatha Christie was indeed “The Queen of Crime.” Over two billion of her books have sold worldwide. To put that into perspective, her book sales have only been topped by the Bible and Shakespeare.
Arguably, her most famous character is the beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, best known for his crime solving brilliance in Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express which have been brought to the screen multiple times.
Most recently, Kenneth Branagh adapted these two novels into movies (Murder on the Orient Express in 2017 and Death on the Nile in 2022). He not only directed but also starred as Hercule Poirot.
Branagh’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation is A Haunting in Venice, based on her novel “Hallowe’en Party.”
The story involves a crime novelist (Ariadne Oliver, played by Tina Fey) whose work is based on Hercule Poirot’s most famous cases. The failure of her last three books prompts her to seek out Poirot and lure him out of retirement. The carrot she dangles is a baffling case of murder and a spirit medium who seems to be completely legitimate and real.
While Poirot dismisses the possibility that the spirit medium can communicate with the dead, his curiosity nevertheless gets the best of him. The case challenges his fundamental beliefs about spirits, immortal souls and the very existence of God.
Before long, he is invited to a children’s Halloween party in a haunted mansion in post-WWII Venice to be followed by a séance performed by the famed Mrs. Reynolds, played by Michelle Yeoh.
Mrs. Reynolds is initially convincing, but Poirot wastes no time beginning to debunk her elaborate stage tricks and illusions. But then, things take a chilling turn when she is shockingly murdered and Poirot finds himself thrust back into the role of crime investigator, trying to determine which of the dozen or so suspects is guilty of the crime.
It’s classic Agatha Christie, a dark, dastardly “who done it.” Everyone has a motive. Everyone is a suspect. It’s a worthy challenge for the world’s greatest crime detective.
What A Haunting in Venice offers is tons of atmosphere in the way of set design and lighting. The mansion is a scary place.
In the way of staging and direction it’s a downright terrifying place where light bulbs explode on cue and an elaborate chandelier falls from the ceiling and smashes with the splashy staginess of Phantom of the Opera. Typewriter keys mysteriously strike letters onto blank paper in response to questions from the members of the séance. There are the sounds of voices emanating from the shadowy corridors.
Branagh and his production team create the perfect, classic, cinematic hunted house. Unfortunately, it is a triumph of style over substance.
While Agatha Christie has concocted some truly classic twists and revelations, perhaps the most brilliant being the ending of Murder on the Orient Express in which Poirot discovers that all the suspects were guilty of the crime, A Haunting in Venice reverts to a more conventional storyline in which there is only one real murderer, moreover one who can actually be spotted from the beginning of the film if one is paying attention.
To its credit, A Haunting in Venice has a great opening reel or two that really pulls the audience in for what promises to be a complex puzzle of a plot that will force our protagonist to question his most fundamental beliefs about life, and death, and an afterlife. It’s a story that seems to promise some real psychological depth.
This is where the movie falls short of expectations. In one, pivotal scene, Poirot believes that he has suddenly and shockingly confronted the ghost of a dead girl in the corner of a dark hallway.
She appears to be there, but he turns momentarily, and a split second later she seems to have vanished into thin air.
One would expect that the world’s greatest detective would immediately spring into action to see where she went, whether she was real or just a figment of his imagination, or possibly even a drug-induced hallucination. But inexplicably, that doesn’t happen. It’s a moment inconsistent with Poirot’s DNA – that of a man who prides himself on not being fooled by trickery or deception.
Kenneth Branagh seems to enjoy adapting Agatha Christie material and portraying Hercule Poirot. He keeps returning. Also returning here are Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill wo co-starred with Branagh in his Oscar winning film Belfast (2022).
A questionable casting choice was Tina Fey for the role of Araidne Oliver. The baggage of her appearances on SNL and starring role in the TV series 30 Rock perhaps prevents her from creating a cleanly convincing dramatic presence in A Haunting in Venice.
It’s not exactly an A-List plot from the work of a legendary writer. Perhaps her very best work has already been adapted, several times.
The 1974 movie adaptation of Murder On the Orient Express is perhaps the best of them all, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney (as Hercule Poirot) and Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Richard Widmark.
This time around, it’s
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