Wednesday 20 September 2023

Review: A Haunting In Venice

A Haunting In Venice
Cert: 12A / 103 mins / Dir. Kenneth Branagh / Trailer

There are few images which evoke a perfect combination of civilisation and tranquility like the waterways of Venice, so it's not altogether inapt that we drop in on that city in a post-war setting as the celebrated detective Hercule Poirot is trying his best to adapt to a life of gentle retirement.

As for the haunting? Well, he's trying, that is, against the wishes of a subconscious still struggling to deal with psychoses from the world war before the recent one, followed by a civvy-street occupation that's involved being perpetually surrounded by All Of The Killing. It's no surprise that our hero's sense of reason is on the verge of collapsing. When Poirot attends a Halloween party in a palazzo reputed to be home to dozens of vengeful spirits, it makes for an uneasy evening. And when a visiting medium is murdered following an after-hours seance, well - that makes for a typical one...


And so to the third in this (frankly) troubled string of Kenneth Branagh's interpretations of Agatha Christie's Belgian sleuth. I won't waste space here listing their particular failings, only to say that I approached this film with slightly more dread than was probably intended by 20th Century Studios. I don't necessarily consider myself as a Christie Purist™, but I also don't enjoy watching demonstrably inferior versions of the stories I love.

So I was more surprised than anyone when I found myself rather enjoying A Haunting In Venice. The story is a (very) loose retooling of 1969's Hallowe'en Party, but uses this more as a broad inspiration rather than source-text. And because of that distance between the novel and the screenplay, this has far more of an identity than the previous entries. There are far fewer 'small' inconsistencies to get caught up in when you're watching events unfold essentially for the first time.


Hildur Guðnadóttir's score, Haris Zambarloukos' cinematography and overall production design are firmly on the film's side, all managing to make an isolated, decaying multi-storey mansion still feel atmospherically sumptuous. And speaking of atmos, the sound editing appears to have been taking lessons from the school of Blumhouse for its deathly silences and subsequent jump-scares. That said, in terms of actual chills this is still more effective than most of the straight-up horror flicks of recent times.

Performances of the comparatively (and thankfully) pared-down ensemble cast are solid all round, even if they feel a little televisual in their melodramatic angst. Although with the very best will in the world Branagh's central turn is the weakest aspect of the whole thing (it's like he's hoping the audience will just accept him as Poirot through repeated exposure, rather than any persuasive craft on his part). We're three movies in and the man still sounds like he's auditioning for 'Allo 'Allo.

And if that's not enough to raise a smirk, there are enough high ceilings and falling chandeliers here to suggest that the palazzo isn't actually haunted, it's just got the Trotter family running about in the attic...


Ken's Poirot movies have always worked best for audiences who are able to 'un-remember' previous versions of the story that's being told. A Haunting In Venice is no exception, and wisely assists the viewer by largely being its own - very respectable - thing. If this series is to continue (and it will, whether we like it or not), the way forward will be writing wholly original stories using familiar characters. Absolutely no shame in that, and far more scope for creativity.

Apart from anything else, you really have to admire the chutzpah of budgeting for a Venice location shoot and basing your PR around that, then having 95% of the movie take place indoors, at night, while it's raining too hard to see the scenery in the occasional cutaway exteriors.

Ken got his holiday, I see...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
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