Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Michael Green; Story by Agatha Christie
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey
Synopsis: In post-World War II Venice, Poirot, now retired and living in his own exile, reluctantly attends a seance. But when one of the guests is murdered, it is up to the former detective to once again uncover the killer.
I cannot imagine anyone other than Kenneth Branagh playing the legendary literary figure Hercule Poirot. The director brings an eye-opening amount of nuanced depth to the role. From the breathtaking scene of deductive reasoning in Murder on the Orient Express to the poignant portrayal of staggering strength and vulnerability in the sequel Death on the Nile. On top of that, his direction and the scripts by Michael Green made the character charming, funny, and even goofy, which can be endearing, while also making the plot reveals feel fresh, even though people have been stealing from Agatha Christie’s plot devices for years.
Yet, I am sorry to say that even though this critic kept holding out hope for the first 90 minutes, it became apparent that in the franchise’s third outing, A Haunting in Venice, when Poirot unveils what is in that clever mind of his, the reveal is underwhelming. You realize you saw a beautiful-looking monster in the house picture without much tension or even fascination.
A Haunting in Venice is based on Christie’s book, Hallowe’en Party, the 41st in the Poirot series. Michael Green is back to bring the adaptation to the big screen, along with Branagh’s direction. There are a couple of things that could be improved with the execution of this film compared to the first two. One, they no longer have a cast that rivals the previous most expensive plot camouflage you have ever seen to keep you guessing who the murderer is. Two, the source material is one of Christie’s most unheralded efforts and seems like a studio ploy to pander to up-and-coming Halloween audiences, which always does well in theaters. Finally, the casting of Tina Fey was a mistake because her one-note shtick grows tiresome quickly and shows her limited dramatic range.
While the film does have some big names, including Branagh, Fey, Jamie Dornan, and Michelle Yeoh; the rest of the cast, led by Kelly Reilly, doesn’t hold a candle to the first two. This takes away from the suspense because the film is not well-plotted enough to distract you from the apparent killer, which follows a classic trope that you can see a mile away.
Also, you would think Green would solve the book’s problems, but what made the book remarkable in the first place was changed to appease mass audiences. This causes the build-up to the reveal to be underwhelming (especially the second one), trading well-crafted plot points for dull attempts at supernatural horror thrills that feel cheap. The entire third act feels like such a throwaway. It’s practically a sin since you have to stick to the landing when it comes to genre films like this.
Then we come to Fey, one of the smartest comedic minds of her generation, but her acting is on par with Jerry Seinfeld here. At first, her whip-smart retorts seemed an homage to classic dames in 1930s Jimmy Cagney pictures. It’s fun at first, where this little bit of stunt casting feels like there’s a chance her performance will take off. However, when the film turns serious, Fey cannot stand up to Branagh’s Poirot, making the character feel lackluster and small in comparison when there needs to be a heaping amount of friction to make the subplot interesting.
A Haunting in Venice is exceptionally produced and beautiful to look at. There aren’t many locations that rival Venice, when it comes to bringing beauty and a haunting allure to films that want to add some of the thrills and chills of the movie theater experience. And while I have an issue with Fey, most of the cast does an admirable job (though Yeoh’s laughable chair-spinning scene may live in infamy). However, while watching the third installment, I thought the film had been a victim of studio marketing, claiming the movie was trying to put a spin on the film into a different genre.
Yet, it became apparent Branagh and Green made a concerted effort to keep a supernatural element in the film, but like the source material, it simply doesn’t work and adds nothing to the story.
In fact, it takes away from it.