In his previous two outings as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022), director Kenneth Branagh took audiences on a pair of sumptuous thrill rides where they could watch the funny little man the huge mustache pick apart the opulent shells of the super-rich (and their hired help) to reveal the rotten core underneath. And he did it with a cast of superstars, from Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe in Express to Gal Gadot and Annette Bening in Nile, to help him give his efforts the glossy veneer of an old-time Hollywood epic.
In his third outing as Poirot, A Haunting in Venice, Branagh has traded in the glamor of those films for a dark and gloomy tale that stays stuck in the mire. Dark and gloomy isn’t just a reference to the story Branagh is telling; the film looks terrible, as though you’re watching it through a pair of opaque plastic 3D glasses, even though the movie is in 2D. It could be an automated projection problem (no actual projectionists are staffing the booths anymore), or it could be the aesthetic the director was trying for, but something’s off when the commercials on TV look better than the movie does in the theater,
Dull visuals aside, the lifeless narrative of A Haunting in Venice makes it hard to sit through. As the story opens, Poirot is retired from the detective business and living an orderly life of ease in Italy’s famous flooding city, dividing his time between gardening and gobbling pastries. Even though there is a line of people outside his door every day looking for his help, Poirot passes by them as if they don’t even exist. He has a bodyguard follow him to rough up potential clients who are too persistent.
Then, one day, an old acquaintance named Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) gains entrance into his home and drags him back into the world he left behind. She gets him to go to a seance with her to help find a way to expose the medium (Michelle Yeoh) as a fraud. What starts as an easy case for the detective soon becomes a mystery that may prove too big for even the great Hercule Poirot to solve.
Of course, there is no real doubt that the great detective won’t get to the truth. It doesn’t matter if it is a book, TV show, stage play, or movie or if Poirot is played by Branagh, David Suchet, John Malkovich, or Tony Randall, Poirot never fails. All the stories end the same way, with the entire cast standing in the same room to hear the detective explain the case and reveal the culprit. The good ones keep you guessing, and the best ones surprise you with the final solution.
A Haunting in Venice isn’t one of the good ones. Instead of concentrating on the crime, it spends way too much time trying to convince us (and Poirot) that there is something supernatural behind it all and that the house is haunted by spirits actively interfering with the humans running around its dark and dank hallways. Weird things happen – chairs spin, windows shatter, an odd child keeps popping up and giving directions – but it never feels real. There’s even a sequence where Branagh uses some genuinely awkward and awful camera movements to make the viewers think how strange things are getting. He probably means it to draw you into the chaos he is trying to bring to the film, but it makes viewers nauseous.
By the time Poirot gathers the cast to explain who is guilty of what and why, it’s all too much, too late. Worse, it doesn’t make sense. Or maybe nobody outside the dark and gloomy room on the screen by that time cares.