If there’s a prime example of a franchise getting better with every movie, Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie universe is a prime example. Starting in 2017 with the generic “Murder on the Orient Express,” it’s sequel, the 2022 feature “Death on the Nile” was rollicking fun if only for how horny it was in its themes and presentation. But, surprisingly, Branagh followed that up with a dark and somber haunted house story, “A Haunting in Venice” that, if anything, showcases both his impassioned love for Christie’s work and ability to tell a truly spooky film.
Acclaimed detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is in a bit of a slump. It’s 1947 and Poirot spends his days avoiding mysteries and eating cake. But things change when his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) comes calling, asking Poirot to witness a seance led by psychic medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). Reynolds hopes to commune with the deceased daughter of opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who many presume was driven mad by the ghosts of children left to die in the Venetian home.
Unlike the first two Poirot movies Branagh did that adapted Christie’s texts, “A Haunting in Venice” is less an adaptation of the novel “Hallowe’en Party” — considered one of Christie’s lesser works — and more inspired by it. Screenwriter Michael Green, who has been with this franchise since the beginning, crafts a lovely script filled with beautifully elegant prose that almost comes off like you’re reading a Christie novel. This is aided by John Paul Kelly’s exquisite production design which makes Venice’s water-filled roadways, wrought-iron gates and the entirety of the Drake household look like a place out of time. Though this is post-war Italy, it almost feels medieval in the harsh furnishings and dark lighting.
Branagh’s Poirot takes a noticeable backseat in this outing and that’s to the movie’s benefit — though the actor/director remains perfect at his job, particularly with Poirot’s deadpan humor; “every suspect is somebody’s old friend” is a line for the ages. But it’s clear Poirot is struggling with loss and grief of his own though the movie, strangely, never seeks to explain that. If you’ve read the books then the name Katherine Grey holds some weight, but when her name is brought up once in the film it’s a true “huh” moment for everyone else.
Thankfully, you don’t have much time to worry about Poirot’s life because of how drawn into the story you become. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos perfectly conjures up an eerie atmosphere reminiscent of Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others,” with candlelight and shadows permeating every scene. There’s an overarching sense of ominousness this go-round, so much so that Poirot isn’t even particularly joke-riddled.
And it makes for a helluva ghost story as nearly all the characters are hiding some secret torment in their lives. “Yellowstone” star Kelly Reilly and Jamie Dornan, who did his best work in Branagh’s “Belfast,” are the film’s MVPs. Not only is Reilly flawless in costume designer Sammy Sheldon’s impeccable 1940s wardrobe, but the actress is so fantastic as playing a woman riddled with guilt, but also maybe holding in darkness that no one knows about. Trust, if you’ve watched Reilly on “Yellowstone,” you know how fantastic she is at playing a facade and it’s masterful watching her work.
Dornan, to his credit, goes the opposite route, playing a doctor dealing with “battle fatigue.” Much of his time is spent mumbling and trying to hold it in for his son, Leopold (Jude Hill, another “Belfast” alum), but he does a lot with a little. Really, that’s much of the cast this go-round because the sense of atmosphere and the ghost story really do limit how much character development everyone gets. Michelle Yeoh makes a meal out of her brief screentime, particularly in a moment of verbal sparring with Poirot. Tina Fey, in a rare dramatic turn, also does well. She thrives on playing a Christie-esque character, though she seems a bit wooden when taking on a more active detective role.
But “A Haunting in Venice” really doesn’t feel like a detective story. It’s a great, old-fashioned Gothic horror film on par with “The Innocents” and the aforementioned “The Others.” The scares are far too often punctuated by loud noises, but Branagh and crew tend to find more spookiness in just the general sense of dread. The inner torment of Dornan’s Farrier or the personal sense of insignificance felt by Joyce’s assistants, played by Emma Laird and Ali Khan, is meant to stand in for the ghosts that maybe haunt the halls.
“A Haunting in Venice” is a moody Gothic horror feature that feels completely refreshing in a landscape of jump scares and gore. Branagh lets Poirot take a back seat to a dark story of regret and loss, where his side performers can thrive. This is one you’re going to watch to experience in the dark, the perfect movie for fall.
“A Haunting in Venice” opens exclusively in theaters on Sept. 15.