The reason Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot series succeeds is through his portrayal of a man obsessed with the corporeal and his belief in human nature and its folly; no room can be made in his world for the supernatural or the impossible. He is the essence of what writer Christopher McQuarrie describes in his script for 1995’s The Usual Suspects: “To a cop, the explanation is never that complicated. It’s always simple. There’s no mystery to the street, no arch-criminal behind it all. If you got a dead body and you think his brother did it, you’re gonna find out you’re right.”
Of course, Detective Hercule Poirot existed long before the man who created Keyser Söze was even born. But Poirot’s singular drive to bring those afoul of the law to justice – no matter how damning the truth or who it damns – is the linchpin that informs his every decision. He’s seen all manner of suspects, from the aged to the young, but he’s never seen anything out of his realm of reason and fact. To this end, Branagh’s A Haunting in Venice might just be the famed detective’s undoing.
Brought out of simple retirement life – well, he still fusses about the size of his morning eggs – by Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), the author whose books have made Poirot a legend, he’s invited to one of the most sensational of all parlor tricks: a séance. And not just any séance; the medium in question is the world-renowned Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who’s come to communicate with the deceased Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson), a woman who flung herself from the roof of her palatial Venetian estate. Thrilling… especially considering it’s to take place on Halloween night.
With the usual structure and machinations, Branagh sets us up for one of the most beguiling and fiendish nights Poirot has ever faced in his career. Instantly, we’re hooked by the possibility of Reynolds and her “performance” being disemboweled bit by bit in his own peculiar idiom, with Poirot hurling fact-based observations like furious invectives in his clipped Belgian accent. But when an unexpected murder occurs with no explanations – and especially after he starts seeing visions of ghosts – we find him in the fight for his very sanity, struggling to hold onto it before it slips through his fingers.
This third outing for both director/star Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos finds them wielding their artistic chops to bring us a new look. Gone are the sunlit, shot-on-65mm widescreen vistas of the Simplon Pass and the Nile River. Instead, Zambarloukos opts for a taller image to make this Venice palazzo overbearing and uncomfortable, creating a character out of the estate with shadowed walls, rooms, and passages that dwarf those who walk within. Reflecting the film’s dark theme and subject matter, light is at a premium here, as if to cement Poirot’s journey toward the truth. Each space has its own story to offer and its own secrets to tell, and Branagh and Zambarloukos mine richness out of every inch they can squeeze into the frame.
Much like his scripts for Branagh’s preceding Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, writer Michael Green keeps us in thrall by locking the doors to limit the number of participants and their movements. Yes, it’s another bottle episode, yet it seems grander in scope and depth due to the interpersonal ties teased against the backdrop of the larger-than-life house. We all know someone’s probably going to be exposed as working with someone else, but Green takes a tantalizingly malicious tact of drawing motives and relationships out little by little while goosing us with jump scares that maintain this film’s edge. These scares are not meant to be horrifying; instead, they’re meant to show Poirot’s nerves fraying as he’s brought back to the land of the living through the dead.
Green has a tendency to keep everyone in the dark – literally – to give the audience no scents to pick up. Spatial relations (e.g., who’s in what room and when) are toyed with or omitted altogether, which forces us to be told rather than shown, leading to a certain sense of frustration in the viewer. We’re only given Poirot’s point of view of these proceedings, with little interplay between the other characters to further define who they are and their purposes. One might feel that it’s cheating, especially during the big dénouement where Poirot unleashes his solution, even though one can see the scant threads and clues laid into the film straining to make sense of the film’s whirlwind confusion.
Adding to the confusion are the characters who only seem to serve as Poirot’s cannon fodder or obstructions. Alicia’s grieving mother Rowena (Kelly Reilly), ex-fiancee Maxime (Kyle Allen), former caretaker Olga (Camille Cottin), personal physician Leslie (Jamie Dornan), and his son Leopold (Jude Hill) have all been summoned to this séance, possibly having played a part in her demise. Because they’re all playing second fiddle and pushed to the side, we’re kept off-beat and in a constant state of disarray, which threatens to doom everyone not named Hercule Poirot to an almost nondescript existence. To their credit, the actors make the most of their shallow half-lives in support of the mystery at hand, involving us with the little character development they’ve been given and letting their actions define them more than their words.
No, it all comes back to why this trilogy of films works: A Haunting in Venice belongs to Poirot, gifted the freedom (and screentime) to deny his human feelings the opportunity to impede his legendary acuity. Branagh commands our attention as he puts Poirot through the mental wringer, unable to reconcile these supposedly supernatural occurrences with his world of hard fact, science, and instinct. Watching Poirot squirm as he tries to stay even-keeled is rather compelling, and there’s a solid conundrum afoot. But by shorting those around him for the sake of atmosphere and drama, and by delaying everyone’s character revelations until the last possible second (Lionel Twain would have a field day with this), a little bit of the fun gets taken out of A Haunting in Venice. Not too much, though; a haunted house on a stormy night still has its surprises, and Branagh’s take on it provides just enough chills to kick off the Halloween season.