Disney’s The Haunted Mansion would probably have been more sophisticated, but I wound up instead at Kenneth Branagh’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation, A Haunting in Venice. There are so few film openings of any interest lately that I decided morbid curiosity was motivation enough.
I saw Branagh’s stupid adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express back in 2017, when he first took on directing as well as starring in Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries. Branagh is so hopelessly miscast as the brilliant black-haired Belgian detective Poirot, being sandy-haired and blue-eyed, with a face like an Irish potato and an acting style of hammy obviousness — hell, even his version of Poirot’s famous moustache is all wrong — that there’s a certain entertainment to be had in irritable hate-watching. (To see Poirot interpreted correctly, as every Christie mystery fan knows, just watch David Suchet play him for nearly a quarter of a century on ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot series from 1989 to 2013. Rare perfection in casting and performance.)
Then I skipped Branagh’s Death on the Nile (2022) when reports indicated that it was even worse than his first outing. But I’m confident that A Haunting in Venice tops all of Branagh’s efforts when it comes to sheer filmmaking idiocy. It’s rare to see camerawork and lighting so atrocious they make you laugh out loud, but here we have it: a relentless visual assault of fish-eye lens work; shaky-cam running shots; 360-degree pans; who-put-out-the-lights-style darkness with leprous green and blue tints to suggest ghostliness; and extreme high-angle long shots intercut with extreme low-angle long shots as if a bat in the rafters and a beetle by the floorboards were having some sort of strangers-in-the-night exchange of glances (and by the way, that film might be worth watching, if only this mess of a film starred a bat and a beetle).
I’m sure this is no fault of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos or gaffer Dan Lowe. Oh no, this is pure Branagh, whose directing and acting choices are consistently large and dopey. I don’t know what he’s got against Agatha Christie exactly, but if he’d set out on a personal vendetta to destroy her reputation as an ace plotter, and to convince a new generation that the legendary mystery writer was actually a moron, Branagh couldn’t have made worse films based on some of her best novels.
Very loosely based, I should add, especially in the case of A Haunting in Venice. The source material is Christie’s 1969 book Hallowe’en Party, which contains one of her niftiest premises. It’s about Christie’s alter-ego character, best-selling mystery writer Ariadne Oliver, who’s visiting friends in an ordinary English village. While there, she attends a neighbor’s Halloween party for some of the village children. One child, a thirteen-year-old named Joyce Reynolds, is trying to impress the famous author, and she claims to have witnessed a murder herself. No one believes her, because Joyce is one of Christie’s daringly unlikeable children. Joyce is known to be a liar and a show-off, always making up stories to get attention.
But tragically, Joyce ends up dead, murdered by someone who drowned her in the bobbing-for-apples bucket while everyone else was in another room distracted by some other Halloween-themed activity. So it seemed that someone did believe Joyce after all, and Ariadne Oliver calls her friend Hercule Poirot to come down and solve the case.
Branagh chucks out all of that material. (Actually, the screenwriter responsible for the adaptation is Michael Green, but since Branagh gets the auteur credit of “A Film by Kenneth Branagh,” he gets all the blame.) The few shreds of Christie’s narrative that he keeps are silly in the extreme. For example, it’s Poirot who decides to bob for apples — all alone in a room, for no clear reason. He nearly gets drowned by a mysterious assailant. Joyce Reynolds is the character name assigned to a psychic medium (Michelle Yeoh, game for anything). She’s been hired to contact the spirit of the young woman who committed suicide in her mother’s already-haunted palazzo.
And Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) shows up at Poirot’s big Venetian door ostensibly with two goals: to spring him from his clearly soul-killing retirement, and to debunk psychic Reynolds, who is so impressive that even ultrapractical Oliver has become tempted to believe in the supernatural. Her real reason for involving Poirot, when it’s finally revealed, is so ridiculous and contrary to the character’s essential qualities, it once again makes you wonder what Agatha Christie ever did to deserve the Kenneth Branagh treatment.
The whole unwieldly plot has been relocated to Venice in 1947 — why? Tax breaks? No idea, except that Venice looks exotic and moody on film. The idea is that Poirot has gone to live there in retirement, a bit of plot lifted from another Christie novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which Poirot has retired to a house in the small English village of King’s Abbot and dedicated himself to growing vegetable marrows, a retirement plan that becomes maddeningly boring for him almost immediately. In the Venice version, we get a typical Branagh-esque flourish: the retired Poirot is so beset by people lining up outside his door to consult the famous detective, he has to employ a bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) to fight them off bodily, punching them, throwing them into the canal, and so on.
The year when Branagh’s adaptation is set, just after the end of World War II, allows for a lot of hammy monologues about wartime loss and trauma. Poirot, for example — a character written to be a thoroughly bourgeois little man and a good Catholic, as he himself proudly proclaims in several mysteries — volunteers the unlikely information that he’s lost his faith after two world wars and innumerable murder cases. This is why he doesn’t believe in ghosts — there’s no afterlife, see. As soon as he says that, you know he’ll solve “the haunting” in thoroughly rational terms with one lingering, ghostly ambiguity that implies his faith has been restored.
Anyway, there are a lot of highly unmemorable characters in place of the much more memorable Christie characters, though Branagh hangs onto some of the old character names. Christie’s Rowena Drake is an officious middle-aged woman who does all the “good works” in the village with such efficiency that she’s almost universally disliked, and she hosts the Halloween party. But in this adaptation, she’s entirely rewritten. Now she’s the opera-singer owner of the palazzo (Kelly Reilly) who can’t sell the crumbling edifice at any price in postwar Italy, though she’s tormented by what seems to the spirit of her daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who died by suicide. Apparently, Alicia was driven to it by a failed love affair and the many ghosts of plague-ridden children who were locked into the palazzo to die centuries earlier.
Also attending the séance are Alicia’s apparently caddish ex-lover (Kyle Allen), Rowena Drake’s ex-nun housekeeper (Camille Cottin), a war-traumatized doctor (Jamie Dornan), and his small bespectacled son (Jude Hill of Belfast). There are also the psychic’s two assistants who are Romanian refugees (Ali Khan and Emma Laird) claiming to be brother and sister and looking nothing like Romanians or like each other.
Poirot is drugged at some point in these shenanigans, but you can’t use drugs as an excuse for inane plotting and ridiculous cinematography. Nice try, Branagh!
Though, to be fair, you should know that A Haunting in Venice came in second at the box office during its opening weekend. It was beaten only by The Nun II in what’s being reported as the second-lowest earning weekend at the movies in 2023.
But many critics like the film. I swear, you could add stars and fat production values to any dog’s breakfast of a movie and find plenty of critics ready to exclaim over it. Bilge Ebiri of New York Magazine/Vulture hopes Branagh “makes ten more of these” Christie adaptations! Anthony Lane admires the film for having “the charm of ridiculous excess”!
However, anyone who has a clear recollection of Agatha Christie novels — beware.
If you’re simply feeling desperate to see a movie in a time of cinematic doldrums, you know what you could see instead? There’s a raucous low-budget comedy called Bottoms, about an all-girl high school fight club — excuse me, “women’s self-defense class” — that’s genuinely funny and features fresh new filmmaking talent. You don’t have to settle for moldy, incompetent entertainment by old hacks like Branagh. There’s better stuff out there if you look.