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  • Pierce Budnyj

‘A Haunting in Venice’

Kenneth Branagh’s latest entry to his Poirot series is a marked improvement over its predecessor - the vapid, superficial ‘Death On The Nile’ - but, admittedly, doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first in this unofficial trilogy; the resplendent ‘Murder On The Orient Express’. Although, in fairness to this one, its source material - Agatha Christie’s ‘Hallowe’en Party’ - is hardly on the same level as the novels the previous two instalments were based on. So, in that regard, it’s impressive that it holds its own.

The picture begins with the establishment of Poirot’s retirement in Venice, due to an implied apathy against the world in which he lives. This retirement is invaded by Tina Fey’s pushy crime novelist, who regards themself as an “old friend” of the legendary Belgian detective, Ariadne Oliver - a frequent supporting character in the books, who has not previously appeared in the Branagh films. Oliver is the one who tempts Poirot out of retirement with the irresistible offer of disproving a psychic medium, portrayed by recent Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh - who will be holding a seance at the palazzo of Kelly Reily’s opera singer. Reily’s character’s hope is that the scene will allow her to communicate with her deceased daughter. However, things start to get complicated when the way in which this daughter faced their demise is questioned during the seance…

Branagh’s performance of the detective holds up well in comparison to the other on-screen turns of the part. He never seems like he’s wearing an elaborate disguise, like Albert Finney, nor does he play it too broadly and without depth - like Ustinov. No, Branagh is thoroughly convincing in the part, with the right amount of cantankerousness, eccentricity and likeability. It must also be noted that the moustache is particularly accurate to Christie’s descriptions, unlike his predecessors. The other members of the supporting cast are similarly competent but there is no real standout other than Branagh, who steals his own movie with a surprising depth.

Much like all of Branagh’s filmography, this has some exceptional cinematography from Harris Zambarloukos. The film is very competently made. And that, in itself, might be the problem with these Branagh adaptations: they are a bit too polished. Visually, this one is not as severe in that regard as ‘Death On The Nile’, which could have been mistaken for a perfume advert at times. But, all the same, the veneers are snugly fitted in the film’s mouth, and what you tend to end up with is a pretty generic murder mystery film.

Of course, the ensemble is solid and the characters are reasonably well-drawn, yet they are all riddled with cliches. You’ve got the superstitious housekeeper (Camille Cottin in a disappointing follow-up to her stellar turn in ‘Stillwater’), the PTSD-stricken former soldier (a dull Jamie Dornan), the “precocious” child (the kid from ‘Belfast’), and the passive-aggressive fiance (a watchable Kyle Allen). Very well-written - but it makes the picture become predictable for a while, and therefore somewhat monotonous.

The film’s second act particularly suffers from this. The only respite the audience gets during the middle half-hour are some haunting sequences that highlight Poirot’s paranoia: the exploration of which is one of the film’s best qualities, given the unusually vulnerable light it puts the character in.

You see, a part of the film I haven’t really highlighted is Poirot’s questioning of the reality of supernatural elements. In the end, the film is relatively inconclusive, but this does allow Branagh the opportunity to explore the horror genre - and hereby show some of the film’s more thrilling sequences, which I shan’t ruin for you. The presence of such supernatural aspects, as well as an attempt on his life early into the picture, render Poirot in a position somewhat out of his depth. Yet, we, as the audience, know that his life is never in any true danger - after all, these films seem to do reasonably well at the box office.

Ultimately, the film’s best part - as ought to be the case with any good murder mystery - is a superbly written ending that keeps you on the edge of your seat. A fair few of the concluding revelations actually caught me off guard but, in fairness, I was suffering a trifle from a cold whilst watching this - so they’re probably a bit more obvious than I’m giving the picture credit for.

At the end of the day, the film is worth a watch. It’s easy viewing, nicely shot, well-acted, and you will, if nothing else, be charmed by Branagh’s turn - but don’t go into it expecting a work of art.



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