Fresh off his fine appearance in
(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
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
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
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
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.