Kenneth Branagh’s third Agatha Christie adaptation is the kind of film targeted at a thinking adult audience. ‘A Haunting in Venice’ has a fairly pedigreed cast, intriguing moments and is spooky enough to draw in the eager horror fan. But the film plays out in a rather dry, matter-of-fact pitch that does nothing to enhance the engagement.
Branagh does double duty as this film’s lead character and director with effortless ease. His earlier two Agatha Christie adaptations were not exactly game-changers at the box office, and this one also does not seem to have any great ambition other than to create a crafty ambience that may appeal to a select audience. This time, there’s a supernatural angle that bears fair resemblance to Christie’s novel, ‘Hallowe’en Party’, that came out in 1969. Using Venice instead of England as the setting, scriptwriter Michael Green trips the traditional mystery with a dose of Gothic horror, thus lending the film an edge that was never found in any of the earlier adaptations.
Hercule Poirot’s (Branagh) theatrics are rather subdued in this one, given that he is being cajoled out of a self-imposed retirement by his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey). She is a mystery novelist whose main aim is to discredit an infamous clairvoyant, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who she hopes might become a trusty subject for one of her upcoming novels.
Ariadne entices Poirot to come to a Halloween seance in a supposedly haunted palazzo, where a grieving former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) is apparently grappling with the mystery of her daughter Alicia’s (Rowan Robinson) untimely and tragic death.
This allurement happens shortly after the events of ‘Death on the Nile’ when Poirot appears satisfied with pottering around his garden while his 24-hour bodyguard, Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio), keeps him protected from eager beavers.
Michael Green, who also wrote the previous two Branagh-helmed adaptations of Poirot, does some jugglery here by dropping characters and adding new ones. The plotting, though, is not as interesting as it could have been. The fact that the draughty, worn-down palazzo is haunted by ghosts makes it a little more fascinating. The legend that the palazzo is haunted by the ghosts of children locked in and left to die centuries ago, brings in a horror angle and allows Branagh’s regular cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos space to create an ambience that is spooky enough to grab some attention. He uses fish-eye lenses, Dutch tilts, ominous close-ups, angled shots, and compositions that take in the arrangement of furniture and other accessories, including characters, within the palazzo. Editor Lucy Donaldson times the cuts efficiently, allowing for a shorter and more compact runtime. Zambarloukos’ largely anamorphic lensing amplifies the visceral scare factor, but the lack of emotional connect ends up playing spoilsport.
Ariadne is expecting to trip Poirot into accepting the existence of ghosts and that’s the film’s premise, but it’s not envisaged with any in-depth questioning of faith or beliefs. Rudimentary Biblical passages and the presence of a former nun are used to lend some spiritual fervour, but it doesn’t do anything to enhance the involvement.
Poirot’s road back to becoming a detective was expected and so is Poirot’s typical pattern for resolving a case. The difference here is basically the creepiness that seeps into the narrative, thanks to some exemplary camera work and some fairly good performances.
‘A Haunting in Venice’ has a polished spookiness and intrigue that can be appreciated, but it’s not involving enough to scare the pants off its audience.
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