A Haunting in Venice: behind the storm and the haunted house, a formulaic plot appears

Kenneth Branagh, “A Haunting in Venice” (2023)

For his third outing as Belgian police detective Hercule Poirot, actor / director Kenneth Branagh chose to go with an original script based loosely on Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party”. The names of various characters and some plot elements – bobbing for apples in a tub of water, a Halloween Party setting – are reworked into a Christie-style murder mystery that takes place in a down-at-heel palazzo in Venice in 1947. By this time, Poirot, disenchanted with human society after two world wars and a career investigating crimes of murder, has retired into self-exile in Venice – there’s no explanation why he should go live in that city, apart from perhaps the tasty pastries made there – with ex-police officer Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio) as his bodyguard. Nevertheless, an old friend, crime mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) tracks Poirot down and persuades him to attend a séance at the palazzo of former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) in order to unmask the medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) as a fraud. Drake has hired Reynolds to try to communicate with her dead daughter Alicia who apparently committed suicide by throwing herself off a balcony into a canal after her fiance Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen) broke off their engagement.

Poirot attends the séance all right and quickly discovers that Reynolds has two assistants, not one, by unmasking the second assistant hiding in a chimney. Reynolds then goes into a fit and a trance and suddenly says that Alicia was murdered. The séance ends and not long after, Reynolds is found dead, having been impaled on a statue in a courtyard in dramatic fashion.

A storm isolates the palazzo from the police with heavy rain and equally heavy swells in the canals so Poirot gets cracking, interviewing all the family and guests in the palazzo about where they were and what they were doing at the time of Reynolds’s death: the suspects include Maxime himself, the Drakes’ family doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), housekeeper Olga (Camille Cottin) and Reynolds’s two assistants, brother-sister pair Nicholas and Desdemona Holland (Ali Khan and Emma Laird). Even Portfoglio and Oliver are subjected to a grilling when, despite suffering from tiredness and hallucinations, Poirot quickly works out that the two have personal connections and interests in Alicia Drake’s death: Portfoglio had been the police officer who retrieved Alicia’s body and Oliver had wanted to test Poirot’s ability to expose the séance with reason, expecting him to fail so she could (cynically perhaps) use his failure as part of a plot in her next novel. In the course of his investigations, Poirot discovers that Dr Ferrier is traumatised after his experiences in helping to free World War II concentration camp victims, and that the Holland siblings are Romani refugees seeking a new life in the United States. Just as Poirot prepares to gather everyone in the palazzo together, Dr Ferrier is found stabbed to death in the music room, leaving his precocious son Leopold (Jude Hill) an orphan.

The plot sticks closely to the formula established by Christie in her own writing so it is not too difficult to guess that the most likely murderer of Alicia is the person that everyone would least expect, and that the murder weapon is most likely an ingenious poison. The formulaic nature of the plot results in a film that is not really remarkable save for its setting in a decaying palazzo that harbours many secrets and an unfortunate history dating back to the Black Plague of the 1340s that is the apparent source of a curse in which the souls of children who died from the plague come to haunt and kill doctors, nurses and other medical and healthcare workers. The cinematography plays a great deal with haunted-house stereotypes including booming noises and vibrations in the building (which Poirot discovers are caused by the storm and the flooding in the canals) and the sounds of children calling or singing in the distance (which Poirot realises are his hallucinations caused by a drug secreted into his tea). In addition, nearly all the action in the film takes place in the dark overnight, with the crime fully solved by dawn and all the bodies picked up and taken away by the police. Moments of sensation when Reynolds spins around in her chair, Exorcist-style and when the murderer tries to escape from Poirot, only to die in spectacular style, look so forced that viewers might feel cheated.

The film makes great play of the battle between reason and unthinking belief, between Poirot’s view of the world and his desire for orderliness and rationality on the one hand, and the world he comes into contact with, on the other hand: the world where superstition dominates to the extent that some would use naive religious belief and trust in miracles and curses to manipulate others and commit heinous crimes. The film uses deception to manipulate its audiences as well: in addition to the scenes where Reynolds spins around and Alicia’s murderer comes to an unfortunate end, Maxime is initially portrayed as mercenary and money-grubbing, and viewers may finger him as the Number One murder suspect, while the real murderer is hiding in plain sight. Quite how solving the case changes Poirot’s outlook on life, so that he starts opening up again to the outside world, is never made clear.

Some interesting themes arise but are not made much of: the notion of past psychological traumas and memories affecting people (including even Poirot) in the present wafts about, and issues of trust, faith in reason and the never-ending battle of beating back darkness in all its forms in the world also make their presence felt.

The actors do average work though their casting seems more inspired by identity politics ideology than by their suitability for their characters, given the context of Venice in 1947. There is little character development and even Branagh appears to be going through the motions as Poirot. One suspects there’s not much life left in his portrayal of the detective and that this film may well be the end of a not-remarkable trilogy of crime mystery films featuring Poirot.