Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green (based on the novel Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie)
Spoilers: moderate, though if it's arguably on the higher side of moderate, I'm still not talking the details of ultimate solutions or anything
The Hercule Poirot films of the apparently aptly-renamed 20th Century Studios—based upon, though in all respects rather loosely, the novels that Agatha Christie wrote about her Belgian super-detective—have over the past few years been at the business of quietly creating a unique and hopefully-sustainable space for themselves amongst our over-franchised, IP-addicted film landscape. Obviously, they still are an IP-driven franchise; but as popcorn movies meant for grown-ups, if not retirees, which also seem to operate at an unusual mid-budget level that hasn't invited the type of cumbersome fiddling that other franchises get, they've attained a vibe altogether distinct from regular old blockbuster filmmaking—and "vibes" aside, there just aren't that many studio franchises out there today that have managed to get themselves shepherded three entries in a row by a single world-class filmmaker with decades of experience, oodles of personal style, and an obvious love for what the material permits him to do, if not necessarily all the details of the material itself. This bizarre and miraculous period-piece franchise about classy murder, however, has precisely such a filmmaker in Kenneth Branagh, whom we've been obsessing over a little bit here lately, in a way that I expect implies how interesting the new releases have been otherwise.
It should probably be mentioned that all three of Branagh's Poirot movies have also had the same writer, Michael Green—three major motion pictures with one single voice? is that even legal?—and, whether you actually like Green's adaptations of Christie or not, and I won't tell you they're all perfect, now that we have a whole Poirot "trilogy" (not that A Haunting In Venice actually imposes any conclusion, and I pray we'll get as many as Branagh wants to make), you at least have to concede that this kind of monolithic creative team three movies in a row is, in our current era, special. Branagh has likewise ensured the consistency of having the same cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, and arguably that's been even more important. For all that, Branagh, Green, and Zambarloukos have switched things up considerably on this third go-'round: A Haunting In Venice, as the title suggests—the title of its source material, second-tier Poirot novel Hallowe'en Party, obviously would suggest much the same, but it wouldn't fit the series' Morbid Noun and a Prepositional Phrase naming convention, so they changed it—veers remarkably heavily to the "horror" side of "murder mystery." And it does this without even becoming as much of a secret slasher movie as Green's bloody-minded renovation of Death On the Nile.
But to no small degree, this is a completely organic development of Branagh and Green's whole approach to Poirot: as visual objects, these have always been commendably filmic films—the first two were 70mm spectacles done up with some faux-epic pretense (if not, in either case, the VFX budgets to fully match that pretense)—but the narrative strategy that Green adopted from the start to lift them out of being just episodic entertainments has been to contrive one spiritual test after another for poor Hercule Poirot, peeling back the psychological layers of a character who, to my understanding, is rather more of a function in Christie's novels. This worked best in Green's first Poirot, Murder On the Orient Express, which actually did, even in its source, present a case that made a paradox out of Poirot's sense of justice and his sense of order and pushed him into a soul-searing moral struggle. I've observed before, and will now observe again, that Orient Express, the 2017 film, is so apocalyptic about this struggle that it feels more like a finale for Poirot than any kind of introduction to him. Not that we've begrudged getting more: this approach surely worked well enough in Nile—I've shed most of my objections to that movie and come to adore it with basically no real reservations—though it required shoving all sorts of new elements into its story, so as to give it a more personal impact for Poirot than perhaps it strictly needed to have; and while it's all eminently forgivable because ultimately these latter two Poirot films are just episodic entertainments with slight epic pretensions, it is, even so, probably for the best if you go into A Haunting In Venice without any really strong memory that Green's script for Nile inflicted so much personal melodrama upon Hercule Poirot that it, literally, blew his mustache off. (If Venice actually acknowledges any of this, I guess it's with some color symbolism in the now-customary egg breakfast scene during the set-up; either way, while we begin with a Poirot stranded in depression ten years after the fact, because for this movie we've leapt all the way out to 1947—Nile was set in 1937—this has been the result of a most tumultuous decade, where whatever might have happened to Poirot, individually, might well have been the least of it.)
Well, for this one, Green has found yet a third distinct angle by which to test his hero, this time by pitting his cold materialistic worldview against the irrational, and this is one reason why I'm glad this remains Branagh's franchise: I couldn't tell you the last time a Scooby-Doo story got told properly in a movie theater and the temptation that horror presents its practitioners, towards complete disambiguation and the overt supernatural, is not a temptation I'd have liked a Hercule Poirot film to have faced without the steady judgment of a filmmaker who obviously isn't above significant reimagination, but would not like to betray the very essence of his source material; Branagh and Green ultimately split the difference here very nicely, and Poirot's rational clockwork universe—I don't think this is a spoiler, more like a crucial selling point—is only ever shaken by this harrowing night in a haunted house, rather than outright shattered.
So: the specific task laid out before Poirot here arrives by way of his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who years ago had her hand in making him as famous as he is, by reworking his cases as murder mystery literature (obviously enough, then, Christie's own parody of herself); Oliver finds Poirot a hermit, rarely leaving his Venetian apartment, and when he does it's only to acquire fresh pastries from behind the protective shield of his valet Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamario). He has not taken a case in a long while, but Oliver thinks she can tempt him, or at least leverage their friendship, to accompany her to a seance held by the "unholy" Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), on behalf of retired opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who hopes to contact her daughter (Rowan Robinson), a suicide. The environs are appropriate to the melancholy of this ritual, Drake having made her abode in a rotting Venetian palazzo already alleged to be haunted even before her daughter, in a fit of lovelorn madness, threw herself off its balcony—there is also a storm coming, and, of course, it's Halloween, so it's spookier still—and, with heaving reluctance, Poirot sallies forth to debunk Reynolds's little magic act, which, because he is Hercule Poirot, he accomplishes in about two minutes.
Rather more difficult will be to determine who's murdered Reynolds immediately thereafter, and, as ever, Poirot is confronted with a grand array of suspects keeping secrets from him: besides those already mentioned, we have Reynolds's sibling assistants Desdemona and Nicholas Holland (Emma Laird and Ali Khan); the daughter's ex-fiancé, Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), whose rejection of her helped drive her to her death; her erratic ex-serviceman doctor, Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), who failed to help her, representing the final nail in the coffin of his medical career; and Dr. Ferrier brought his kid Leopold (Jude Hill) along for the pre-seance Halloween festivities, and while the ten year old probably didn't kill the spiritualist, he's one awfully weird little kid, and you never know in these things. What becomes clear is that during her seance, Reynolds, fake or not, suggested something that points to someone's guilt, and so she had to die, flung out another balcony and impaled on a piece of statuary.
There are two Branaghs at work here: the first is the one playing Hercule Poirot, the other is the one making this Hercule Poirot movie, and between the two of them they manage a tremendously rewarding harmony of tone for their horrorfied murder mystery. The first, anyway, is embedded completely into these proceedings, so that if I had cause to slightly grouse about the sadsackery that eventually overcame Poirot in Nile I should have even greater cause given the sadsack he starts out as in Venice, though there's a different spin to this one—by no means charmless, but angrier and more caustic—that keeps him a figure you enjoy being anchored to as he solves a crime that engenders further crimes, including a good old proper locked-room mystery that just has to have a ghostly provenance, while the setting wears increasingly on Poirot's soul, and Branagh even begins to doubt Poirot's reason on Poirot's behalf. Fundamentally, Green's script is a post-war noir (it doesn't reference any specifically that I can name, though it's already one hell of a better remake of Nightmare Alley, with which its setting shares a year, than Nightmare Alley), and accordingly Branagh has invited us to explore, visually as well as through these characters, the flailing despair of a world full of history but lately emptied of meaning, and where it almost invariably turns out that every single human being you encounter is a piece of shit or so prone to error they're at least an honorary piece of shit.
In this goal, Branagh is aided by a really splendid cast; I don't want to fully commit to it being the best cast he's so far assembled for one of his Poirots, though neither would I dismiss the idea, and "noirish piece of shit" or not, the characters themselves wind up being the most likeable of Branagh's murder mystery ensembles. It could get to that, probably, on the basis of Tina Fey alone; her prickly, snide, somewhat smarmy "authoress" (to use Poirot's term) makes, for the first time in one of these, something along the lines of a deuteragonist, and she's a delightful foil for the arrogant detective, beneficiary of a surprising performance from Fey, who has so often tended to just play a comic version of herself that I wouldn't have expected she had a performance in her at all, though gratifyingly she does, a bit layered and shaded and wrapped up in a cute transatlantic accent. (I'm also very impressed by young Jude Hill, who played miniature Branagh in Belfast and so, most naturally, plays an adorable, if rather morbid, miniature Hercule Poirot-style precocious rationalist here.)
Whatever else, this one definitely has the best first victim of any of Branagh's Poirots, which have—and three times makes it a real tradition—each seen fit to kill their extrinsically-biggest star to kick things off. This time they have Michelle Yeoh, whose performance is thought-through and worked-out enough as a phony (or, the story proffers, merely theatrical?) spiritualist who sincerely seems to buy into at least the substance of her bullshit that it's not even obvious that she will be the first victim. This is a significant departure from Johnny Depp and Gal Gadot, who were wearing "kill me" signs on their backs for as long as their characters were still going concerns in their movies, and we could start with it as a key example of the well-considered ways Branagh has been doin' diversity in all his adaptations of a 20th century white lady's books—in this one, the awareness of the inherent tension of a huckster from the mysterious East who only isn't overtly pitching her scam as orientalism for gullible Westerners is a noticeable current—but it's a great little performance above all thanks to Yeoh and the script plainly wanting Reynolds to hang around to keep having pointed philosophical conflict with Poirot, meaning that between the two of them the film manages a structural surprise and even a rather keenly-felt emotional punch pretty much right out of the gate, because Yeoh's participation genuinely does feel like it's been brutally cut short.
But maybe that was for the best, since confining such philosophical discussions to just the first act locked Green into a mode of writing that's rather more willing to trust his audience than he was back on Nile, where every single character was constantly floating their draft lyrics for sad pop songs about love. Poirot's battered rationality is equally the point of Green's screenplay here, but it's only given any completely concrete shape in a single dialogue exchange, which Poirot concludes by smugly identifying the appeal of Reynolds's art as the proxy evidence it provides of a God, but since there is no God, by syllogism, her spiritualism is equally worthless junk—whereupon a ghost, or ghostlike agency, in suspiciously well-timed riposte, rips a chandelier right from the ceiling and sends it flying to the ground in a big old startling crash of sound design.
Which is where that second Branagh I mentioned comes in, from the other side of the camera, flexing his horror muscles for the first time since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (or, at the latest, the first act of Hamlet), and he is altogether having the grandest time playing with every last old dark house horror cliche he could dig out of its grave. And hence the most ridiculous (downright childish!) addiction to studding a somber murder mystery that references the Holocaust with jump scares—the chandelier is just one of them, not the first and hardly the last of them, and A Haunting In Venice might have more jump scares than a given Conjuring movie; it almost certainly does, proportionally—and Branagh never seems to sweat the prospect that these jump scares are as likely to make his movie silly as properly "scary." I guess you could find this annoying if you wanted, but I found it kind of exhilarating—these are some cheap tricks, not the kind of deeply-serious jump scares you find in 21st century machine-tooled horror, no sir, and I think there are no fewer than three jump scares mediated by Drake's "creepy" pet cockatoo (which I kept expecting to be more talkative and develop a plot function, but I guess it's not that silly a movie).
This goes hand-in-hand with the bizarro stylistics that Branagh deploys—acute and frequently-canted angles on the action, woozy wide-angle lensing—and beyond any other concern, what worried me about this Poirot was Branagh and Zambarloukos abandoning the 70mm widescreen aesthetic they'd built their universe on, and I do still find it unaccountably rankling, though the more compact aspect ratio they've taken on here is undoubtedly the right choice, adding to the obscurely-lit claustrophobia of Branagh's shot selection and John Paul Kelly's outstanding haunted palazzo, all of it adding subtly to the psychological depth (or "psychological depth" in ironic scare-quotes if you absolutely must) of this Poirot adventure by evoking submerged and suppressed secrets and desires, and by consistently suggesting that the pursuit of rationalism in an irrational world is its own brand of insanity. Of course, the main thing is that this dark, dank prison looks gross and uninhabitable to anyone still living. Aspect ratio aside, it's as much a love-letter to the Corman Poes as any post-war noir—young Leopold isn't carrying around an Edgar Allan Poe collection solely because he's a creepy kid, I'd wager—and everything Branagh and his team are doing with the visuals emphasizes the same sense of worlds lost to timeworn decay, to the extent I legitimately expected the palazzo to crack in half and sink into the damn ocean before the movie was over. It gets up to antics about as equally enjoyable as that, however, and the plot of this Poirot is terrific fun in its own right, sneaking around alongside its rarely-what-they-seem characters (the last couple of twists surprised me, and while one probably shouldn't have, the very final tragic reveal, while not decisive to the mystery plot, gets queasier and queasier the more you dwell on it, which the film wisely allows you to do on your own time). Branagh rockets through it all with matinee glee, packing 103 minutes with so much gnarly pleasure, weighted with just enough substance to make it feel like more than just a trifle, and completely vindicating my own belief that this Poirot thing Branagh's got going is one of the highlights of a contemporary cinema that sometimes doesn't feel like it has a whole lot of highlights otherwise.