"...a perfect fun film for the Halloween season"

If You’re a Mystery Fan, Haunting May Float Your Boat

(100523) Fresh off his fine appearance in Oppenheimer (which might be the film event of the year) Kenneth Branagh is starring in a new supernatural tinged horror mystery which has been released just in time for the Halloween season.

This is a good, solid mystery with a great cast, superior production values, and not too much gore or sex. It’s proudly old fashioned and it could have come out in almost exactly the same form in the fifties or early sixties (I almost expected to see Omar Sharif or Anthony Quinn show up in it.) The familiar plot involving ghosts, séances and murders could have just as easily been worked with a few tweaks as a Sherlock Holmes film with Peter Cushing, a Neil Adams/Denny O’ Neil Batman comic or a Scooby Doo episode.

The film was directed by Kenneth Branagh who was known early on primarily for his terrific film versions of Shakespeare plays like Henry V (1989), Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Othello (1995), Hamlet (1996), and As You Like it (2006). His creepy Welles influenced Dead Again (1991) which has a similar tone as this film was also a beautiful, first-rate film effort. At the time he seemed like he would go down as history as one of the ever-best actor/directors in film.

He also did some decent and competent if not particularly memorable genre films like Thor (2011), Death in the Nile (2022) and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), but he never seemed to totally fulfill his early promise. His masterpiece remains his brilliant and monumental Hamlet which was shot completely 65 millimeters (at times it rivals the great Olivier version), and at 246 minutes, it was the first and only unabridged film version. At an Oscars ceremony, his frequent collaborator Christopher Nolan (who directed him in
Dunkirk, Inception, and Oppenheimer) famously joked that Branagh’s three-hour Hamlet “is one of films I took great pleasure in pretending to see.” But later, Nolan admitted he had recently seen the film and he was so impressed with it and its high-resolution format that he decided to shoot in 70-millimeter format.

Branagh seems to have a great affection and appreciation for Agatha Christie and her Belgium detective character, Hercule Poirot. and this is the third time he has played this character. While this film is not exactly earth shakingly innovative, it is by far the most entertaining and impressive film in the series. By this time Branagh could almost make this kind of film in his sleep. Making the film for him was probably as comfortable for him as putting on an old shoe.

Hercule Poirot is often compared to Sherlock because they both solve crimes and use reductive (even though they say it’s deductive) reasoning. But there are crucial differences. Holmes seems to love crime solving because he craves an intellectual challenge and loves to show off his mental superiority while Poirot is motivated mostly because he generally cares about the victims and wants to serve justice and catch the criminals. Also, Sherlock Holmes, at least as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. is more action oriented, and often Holmes (especially in the Benedict Cumberbatch and Basil Rathbone incarnations) is often depicted as much more ego driven and arrogant.

The plot (which I admit matters less than the characterization and look of the film) begins when a crime novelist named Ariandne Oliver (SNL graduate Tina Fey in a nice little role) who made her friend Hercule into the main protagonist in her novels (like the real-life Agatha Christie) asks the retired detective to test out Joyce Reynolds, a medium to see if she really has supernatural powers. The arrogant Olivier says that she is asking Hercule to do this because he is the second smartest person after her.

When Alicia is murdered (it was shocking to see such a fascinating character die so early), the suspects include the housekeeper (Camille Cottin), Leslie (Jamie Doran) who is afflicted with PTSD, her son Leopold (Jude Hill who played the young Branagh in Belfast), and two twin assistants. Of course, almost everything is tied up in a bow and explained in the end in a quasi-plausible manner, but there are still lingering hints that the supernatural may exist.

A Haunting in Venice is a perfect fun film for the Halloween season. You might not remember it in in ten years, but you will certainly have a good time while you see it. If they were able to keep the quality up, I wouldn’t mind seeing more films like this or even a TV show featuring Branagh as Hercule, but I’d still rather see him do more Shakespeare or film noir.

Directed by:    Kenneth Branagh
Written by:    Screenplay by Michael Green, based on the
 Agatha Christie story "The Hallowe'en Party"
Starring:    Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh
Released:    09/15/23 (USA)
Length:    103 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing
 images and thematic elements
Available On:    At press time the film was playing at Chicago
 area  theatres

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

Come to the next session of the Monthly Poetry Show on the first Saturday of every month at Tangible Books in Bridgeport from 7-9 at 3324 South Halsted hosted by Vittorio Carli.

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