A Haunting in Venice
Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party proved a rather astonishing choice for the next instalment in Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot series. Before it was announced, many had expected the actor-director to retrace Peter Ustinov’s footsteps and adapt Evil Under the Sun as a sequel to Death on the Nile. The relocation from the fictitious English town in which the book is set to the famous Italian canals presaged bold conceptual choices, and with its horror elements, the trailer released earlier this year had cinephiles’ mouths watering.
Unfortunately the film itself doesn’t offer many surprises and remains as dry as its predecessors. Only a little of the teased genre-bending can be detected: Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is asked to attend a seance at a Halloween party in order to debunk medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) as a fraud. After he reveals some of her tricks (others remain a mystery even to the esteemed sleuth), the woman ends up dead and the real case begins.
The best pieces of detective fiction – be they literary or on-screen – present audiences with enough evidence to get their own minds spinning and consider potential perpetrators or motives. If the big reveal at the end stumps them, it should still be accompanied by the sensatin of puzzle pieces falling into place, ideally even evoking a desire to rewatch the film to pick up on hidden clues.
A Haunting in Venice’s script is over-wrought and leaves nothing to speculation; the attempts at humour are about as original as someone slipping on a banana peel. In a 1947 setting, the odd Americanism creeps into in the European characters’ lines. With it’s plethora of exposition, the director’s greatest focus seems to have been how to orchestrate the tireless dialogue without boring the viewers to death, the solution being to continue the same conversation over several locations in the house. The self-awareness of these flaws – evident in Tina Fey’s character’s meta quips: “Do we need to be out in the rain for this?” and “That is not an expression in any language” – don’t make up for the indolent decisions.
And yes, after The Little Mermaid and Haunted Mansion, one really should not expect these Disney productions to be anything more an easy paycheck for minimum effort performances by established actors, but every participant involved radically undersells their abilities: the doc with shell-shock, Jamie Dornan, displays about as much emotion as the Venetian carnival masks at the Halloween party; Branagh is more concerned with his supposedly Belgian accent than addressing the hit to his character’s belief system we are expected to believe plagues him. Not even freshly baked Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh delivers anything elaborate or daring. Tears appear on her face from one shot to the next, as if the makeup department has dabbed on glycerine between takes.
The creepy sound design from the trailer is absent – even composition genius Hildur Guðnadóttir presents uncharacteristically safe choices with a smooth, string-based score. The catalogue of archival music is particularly lazy, from Glenn Miller’s orchestral In the Mood to tracks from Meet Me in St Louis.
Anyone who has ever been to Venice knows of its spooky potential, but Branagh doesn’t seize upon the murky waters or the claustrophobic unlit alleys (Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One had a better eye for this). The haunted house we are presented with could literally be anywhere in the world, and it wouldn’t make a difference. As far as Venice-based scary movies go, Don’t Look Now remains uncontested.
A Haunting in Venice is released nationwide on 15th September 2023.
Watch the trailer for A Haunting in Venice here: