A Hamming in Hollywood
Today I watched "A Haunting in Venice" (20th Century Fox, 2023) the latest Kenneth Branagh film based on Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot detective novels, in this case her 1969 novel "A Hallowe'en Party."
Well, I say "it's based," there's just the minor change to the setting, the year, the suspects, the victims, the murderer, the motivation, the entire plot, but there are definite (though quite minor) similarities.
Ironically, this starts out as the best of these abhorrent films starring a man badly masquerading as Hercule Poirot, who as we all know will never be better than David Suchet's portrayal. Sorry, I needed to get that off my chest; better to do it near the beginning. But by changing mostly everything about the movie it seems slightly fresher than the other two. That's a trilogy Ken, you can stop now (please stop now).
What's it about?
We join Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) as he has retired from detective work and has largely shut himself off from public life in the city of Venice, with his bodyguard Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scarmacio) keeping the public at a literal arm's length. Such as it is when one of Poirot's old friends, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) comes calling and drags our detective to a Halloween party in an old Venetian house that is home to the former opera star Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). You see, there's to be a séance there with notorious medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to attempt to communicate with Ms. Drake's daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson) who had died horrifically a year prior. In attendance are the PTSD suffering Dr. Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his bookish son, Leopold (Jude Hill), and the Drakes's housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin). After Poirot exposes the fraud of Ms. Reynolds abilities, she seems to have a very real connection to the deceased and names a murderer. Shortly thereafter, guests begin dying mysteriously, and it looks like it might be linked to a ghost story from centuries earlier. Soon after, Poirot begins to hear voices and see spirits… Can the haunting be real?
Wait, this is a book?
So, having read the book that this is (again) "based on," this movie has extraordinarily little in common with it, including the murderer and the motive, making this film a bit of a surprise. In "A Hallowe'en Party" the setting is an English suburb in the swingin' sixties, complete with hippies and rock music, which is jarring when you consider that Poirot is often described as "elderly" in the books that take place in the 1920s and 1930s. Poirot in fact doesn't attend the party in the book (much of the book takes place days after the party in question), the victims are killed for similar reasons but are ultimately different characters, and the murderer from the book is entirely absent from the cast, making it quite the guessing game for fans. What's more, a character that dies in the book (Leopold) makes it through this movie thanks to magical child plot armor (although there is a horrific story of children being murdered which dominates much of this movie). Overall, the film is far spookier than the book that it's "based on."
I lost it when Hercule Poirot said "Zoinks!"
This has two effects, though: The first is that it makes the film far more suspenseful because there are no hippies coming to the rescue (yes, that happens in the book). The second effect is thanks to Kenneth Branagh losing what restraint he has in the first half of the film the second half feels more like an episode of "Scooby Doo," with several hammy reveals and ridiculous set pieces. Hell, there's even a thunderstorm just to make things extra spooky. It feels a bit insulting to me, an Agatha Christie fan, but also tickles the movie fan in me. The interaction between Branagh and Tina Fey keeps the dialogue funny and fresh, as her character is far more involved and cleverer than the dimwit Ms. Oliver from the book. In the end, Branagh's Poirot seems to be a bit less logical and more sentimental than anything that Christie herself ever wrote, but it does humanize him a bit. At least in this film we don't have Hercule Poirot getting in knife fights and other action sequences, which always breaks these films for me.
Check it out, with waivers!
In the end, I feel that it's worth watching. It's far more theatrical than the books, but that's not a bad thing, considering it was made for theatrical audiences. If you can't stand Ken Branagh (and believe me, I sympathize with you if you don't) you're probably going to want to pass, but if you can push past it, you'll find an enjoyable movie that has smart elements beyond its cinematic stupidity.
Don't bring the kids
This film is rated PG-13, and while not especially bloody or sweary, there is some nightmare-inducing content that could be considered too spooky and morbid for children. But I watched "John Carpenter's The Thing" when I was like eight, so what do I know?
Where can you watch it?
"A Haunting in Venice" is currently in theaters as of this writing.