Review by Daniel Lima
Director Kenneth Branagh’s first Hercule Poirot mystery, 2017's Murder on the Orient Express, was an excuse to play dress-up with famous people; the second, a turgid exploration of love and passion. From the first few frames of A Haunting in Venice, it is clear that Branagh is attempting a vastly different approach to this material. As exciting as it is to see an artist adopt a new style, it quickly becomes clear that his ambitions began and ended there.
Branagh again stars as the great detective, now living in retirement in Venice. Coaxed into attending a seance at a derelict manor by the promise of exposing a fraud, the gathering quickly turns into a crime scene, seemingly the work of vengeful spirits. Poirot goes through the usual motions, but as he attempts to hunt down the culprit, even he finds himself at a loss to explain the strange and impossible happenings around him.
True to its title, A Haunting in Venice adopts the macabre veneer of a horror film, or at least a ghostly mystery. The film is cast in subdued hues, and the dilapidated mansion with a dark past that it takes place in is a far cry from a luxury train car or a riverboat cruise. To that end, Branagh does not attempt to capture it in the same stodgy way the previous entries were shot. Here, he utilizes extreme Dutch angles, wide angle anamorphic lenses, and close-ups with vast negative space. All of these attempt to get across the feeling that there is something off, unnatural, wrong.
It’s a commendable effort, particularly from a director in his late-period who is not known as a visual stylist. Unfortunately, while the intent is clear, the effect is ruined by both the execution and the editing. Where a film like The Third Man would utilize angular compositions to present an askance view of the world, there would still be something in the frame to draw the eye and to actively focus on. For much of Branagh's film, the imagery seems pointedly unmotivated: flat and drab lighting that gives the setting an incongruous plastic sheen, objects of focus strewn randomly across the frame or completely nonexistent. At best, it looks as if Branagh knows the techniques that ought to be used but is still beholden to the bland and workmanlike vision he’s displayed in his recent work. At worst, it looks like an amateur production.
Perhaps if the camera lingered on these images and actually allowed the audience to search the screen for some meaning only to come up short, they would cultivate a surreal, nightmarish atmosphere. The problem is this movie is edited like a studio project in 2023, with a flurry of cuts that constantly keep the narrative moving forward. It is as if there’s a fear the audience will get too bored if the mystery movie gets bogged down by attempting to be mysterious. The narrative hinges on the feeling that there might be some supernatural evil at work, but the compromised aesthetic sandblasts away any texture the film could have had.
This means that A Haunting in Venice is left to stand as the previous entries have: as a star-studded locked room mystery. Here, it comes up woefully short. The characters lack complexity, given the barest level of definition, which in turn means the actors have nothing to build their performances off of. None of the ensemble is able to leave an impression (with the exception of a horribly miscast Tina Fey). The actual mystery plays out the way any boilerplate ghost story would, with a conclusion that anyone passingly familiar with this kind of detective story can see coming a mile away. Even Poirot himself feels rudderless, lacking any personal investment in the unfolding narrative or even the small fun character moments that have made Branagh’s portrayal enjoyable. When the mystery is resolved and the characters part ways, it’s hard to see what was the point of it all.
That is the crucial failure of A Haunting in Venice. Beyond changing the cinematography, there is no animating idea behind it, no theme that underscores every frame. One might argue that the story explores the ghosts of the past and belief in something greater than the material world, but the former could be said of the last two entries, and the latter is undermined by the ugly visuals. With nothing to lend the procedural any emotional heft, it can only ever be an stylistic exercise. Sadly, Kenneth Branagh was not up to the task.
A Haunting in Venice hits theaters September 15.