Monday, September 25, 2023

Misfire: A Haunting in Venice

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot once again, in A Haunting in Venice.

A Haunting in Venice is the third Hercule Poirot adaptation written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who stars once again as the impeccably mustachioed Belgian detective. This one claims to be based on a late (1969) Agatha Christie called Hallowe’en Party, but Christie’s plot has been uprooted and replaced with a completely different one; in fact, aside from the name of the murderer and the Halloween fête that opens the story, there’s no overlap. (The book doesn’t take place in Venice and it contains no haunting.) That’s rather weird but no loss, since it’s not one of her better mysteries. The problem is, the film alters it without improving on it. It’s a disappointment after last year’s Poirot, a juicy remake of Death on the Nile.

In this movie, set in 1947, Poirot has retired from the detective game, to the dismay of desperate would-be clients who follow him about and try to gain access to him; he has engaged a retired cop (Riccardo Scamarcio) as a sort of bodyguard to keep them away from him. He also seems to have bowed out of any kind of social life and is living in self-determined exile in Venice. But he allows an old friend, an American mystery novelist named Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), to lure him out to a séance at the home of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), whose daughter (played by Rowan Robinson in flashbacks) drowned in the canal, an apparent suicide. A celebrated medium named Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) has been enlisted to make contact with the daughter; Ariadne, whose last three books didn’t do well, hopes to use the proceedings as a basis for a new volume that will restore her reputation and financial standing. At the same time she throws down the séance as a gauntlet to challenge Poirot’s skepticism. Something happens at the séance, but whatever it is, it’s upstaged by a murder, and Poirot goes to work solving it.

Green has tried to replicate the complications of a Christie narrative, but the script is very silly. His attempt to add a serious layer – which worked far better in Death on the Nile than it had in his first collaboration with Branagh, Murder on the Orient Express – is even sillier: the suggestion that there’s a real ghost hovering in the corners of the ornate Venetian pile where the movie unfolds, visible only to the detective. I kept waiting for Branagh to quote Nicolas Roeg’s creepy 1973 thriller, Don’t Look Now, out of Daphne Du Maurier, also set in Venice, but the only movie quotation seems to be to Citizen Kane: a screaming cockatoo. Still, the locale gives Branagh and his favorite cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, a chance to show us some gorgeous views, and the early hints at the supernatural are shot splendidly. As the film goes on, however, Branagh’s direction becomes chaotic and the set pieces more wearying than unsettling.

Except for Branagh, who is always fun to watch and listen to as the vain, pithy Belgian, the material doesn’t do much for the actors. Yeoh camps it up as the medium; this isn’t an especially rewarding use of her talents. Fey is badly miscast and gives an awful performance. Most of the other actors get swallowed up by the glum plot, which has just about everyone – Reilly as the dead girl’s mother, Jamie Dornan as her doctor, Camille Cottin as her caretaker and Kyle Allen as her former lover – wandering around the mansion sunk in guilt over their failure to save her. The talented child actor Jude Hill gets caught up in the general lugubriousness as Dornan’s precocious, unsmiling son; they were also father and son in Branagh’s marvelous Belfast. Add Emma Laird and Ali Khan as brother-and-sister war refugees in Mrs. Reynolds’s employ and you’ve got a lot of generalized gloom, none of it entertaining. 

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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