On his third attempt, Kenneth Branagh gets an Agatha Christie film right.
I had mostly given up on the once-abhorrent mystery series and gravitated toward his new “A Haunting in Venice” style I was the poor Schlub who was about to be killed.
But while “Murder On The Orient Express” and “Death On The Nile” were elaborate excuses to force as many different and ghastly celebrities onto the screen as possible, “Haunting” is a real, safe film with strong performances and a luxurious one – but terrible sound.
Running time: 103 minutes. Rated PG-13 (some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements). In cinemas from September 15th.
It certainly helps that Branagh, directing again and playing the moustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, is not burdened by stratospheric expectations this time.
“Orient Express” and “Nile” are among the British author’s most revered works, having been adapted several times for film and television and starring stars such as Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov.
By contrast, this third entry is based on “Halloween Party,” a largely ignored Christie title that received a panhandling from critics upon its release in 1969. You’ve probably never heard of it, and that’s a good thing.
What’s more, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green moved the action from Britain to Venice to heighten the romance and spookiness – no offense, Britain – and essentially shredded the original pages from Christie’s and started from scratch. Now the story seductively flirts with gothic horror. It’s still a murder mystery, of course, but in this case it could be that a ghost has a murder mystery.
We meet Poirot again during his retirement in Italy. Restless and irritable, he is pursued by admirers who beg the world-famous detective to solve crimes. With the help of a local bodyguard, he rebuffs her advances until American writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) shows up unannounced and invites him to the Halloween party of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), a wealthy British woman.
There, a great medium named Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) is supposed to hold a séance to summon the spirit of Rowena’s dead daughter Alicia. Ariadne wants Poirot to expose the clairvoyant and perhaps get a new bestseller out of the ordeal.
But don’t you know that a reveler is murdered at the soirée? And suddenly Poirot is forced to act again.
The suspects? Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the war and loves Rowena; Reynolds’ assistants Nicholas and Desdemona, immigrant siblings who dream of escaping to, of all places, Missouri; Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), Rowena’s strict caretaker; and Ferrier’s young son Leopold (Jude Hill).
And of course we can’t ignore Ariadne, Rowena, Poirot or the ghosts of children killed by the plague who supposedly haunt the cursed parsonage.
While in the past I have found the acting in Branagh’s Christie films as wooden as the lido deck in Death On The Nile, in Haunting everyone clicks, united by a soaring sense of terror and the spirit of the ensemble.
It takes a minute to get used to Funny Fey’s fast-talking “His Girl Friday” voice, but once we do, it brings a palate-cleansing lightness. Yeoh is a natural channeler of the supernatural. And Dornan, whose doctor is shaking from trauma, gets better and better as “Fifty Shades of Gray” moves further into the rear view.
And for once the viewer can tolerate Branagh’s acting indulgences.
It’s also a joy to see young Hill working with Branagh and Dornan again so soon after his great debut in Belfast. He’s still a kid, but he’s not a one-hit wonder either.
The ending of “A Haunting In Venice” is admittedly absurd. As always, Poirot connects the dots to solve the crime, but there are more dots here than on a basketball. The exaggerated salon scene strains credibility, even for the crime genre. However, entertaining “haunting,” like a Venetian gondola ride, is more about the journey than the destination.
It took six years, but Branagh finally did something good for us – not a trick.