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Kenneth Branagh’s “A Haunting in Venice” Doesn’t Know What It Wants to Be

Kenneth Branagh's "A Haunting in Venice" Doesn't Know What It Wants to Be
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In “A Haunting in Venice,” Hercule Poirot (star and director Kenneth Branagh) is tired. He is tired of solving murders. He is tired of the entire concept of death and dying. He wonders if this should be the last time he tries to solve a case. And as a viewer, you can’t help but agree with him — he should stop there.

“A Haunting in Venice” is billed as an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Hallowe’en Party,” but the movie has almost nothing to do with that story, changing most of the details of the characters and their relationships to each other. Branagh’s film is set in the early days after World War II, and Poirot has retired from crime solving. Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) is holding a Halloween party for the city’s orphans — a morbid reminder of the cost of war — and after the children are gone, she’ll hold a séance with the medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). Rowena’s daughter has recently died, seemingly by suicide, and Joyce contacted her to hold a séance. Poirot’s friend, author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), wants him to go to the séance with her because she’s been trying to prove Joyce is a fraud but has so far failed.

Of course, the séance goes wrong, and the bodies start piling up in the old Venetian palazzo, which was already rumored to be haunted. None of the guests can escape because of the heavy rains outside, and Poirot is moved into investigating what’s going on even after an attempt is made on his own life. The supporting cast is filled with all sorts of tragic figures, but only Yeoh is really able to rise above the material she’s given to give a memorable performance.

Tonally, “A Haunting in Venice” is all over the place. Branagh tries to lean into the horror and supernatural elements, but his refusal to say if those elements are real or not doesn’t add to a sense of mystery and intrigue. Instead, it just feels muddled and confused. And many of the horror elements feel cheap and lazy, even for a PG-13 film; after a while, the crashing lights, slamming doors, and very loud parrot just feel like distractions.

“A Haunting in Venice” is definitely a step above Branagh’s last Christie-inspired film, 2022’s “Death on the Nile.” His ensemble here is much stronger, and the Venice palazzo has a tactile feeling that every strangely surreal setting in “Death on the Nile” lacked. But both films want to make Poirot the star of their dramas — what matters most is not how the victims’ (and their loved ones’) lives have been affected by the violence but how Poirot himself feels about the events. He cares about the murders mainly because they remind him of the love he lost. There’s something very cheapening about the melodrama of it all. Perhaps Poirot’s internal turmoil could be interesting in another actor’s hand, but Branagh comes off as cartoonish too often.

A good detective story has to mix light and dark together in a perfect blend. There are often funny moments, but part of the humor comes from the surrealness of them taking place in light of a murder. I love catching a rerun of “Columbo,” where finding out who did it isn’t even the fun; the murderer is revealed in the first minutes, and the real enjoyment comes from Columbo unraveling the lies and misdirects of the suspects, who, like in Christie’s Poirot stories, are almost always members of the upper class. But Branagh’s films fail to capture everything that makes watching a murder mystery about the wealthy enjoyable. It can’t balance the tones the detective genre needs to succeed.

Perhaps the thing “A Haunting in Venice” is haunted by most is Benoit Blanc, Daniel Craig’s absurd detective in the Knives Out series, who was clearly inspired at least in part by Poirot. But Craig (and writer-director Rian Johnson) are able to balance Blanc’s innate silliness with much more pathos than Branagh is able to with Poirot. Poirot somehow comes across in “A Haunting in Venice” as both unserious and dour at the same time. The combination is confusing at best and boring at worst. Ultimately, there are much better ways to spend a Halloween night.

“A Haunting in Venice” is in theaters everywhere Sept. 15.

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