A Haunting in Venice

“A Haunting in Venice” is the best of Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot movies. It’s also one of Branagh’s best, period, thanks to the way Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green dismantle and reinvent the source material (Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party) to create a relentlessly clever, visually dense “old” movie that uses the latest technology. 

Set mainly in a palazzo that seems as immense as Xanadu or Castle Elsinore (it’s a blend of actual Venice locations, London soundstages, and visual effects), the movie is threaded with intimations of supernatural activity, most of the action occurs during a tremendous thunderstorm, and the violence pushes the PG-13 rating to its breaking point. It’s fun with a dark streak: imagine a ghastly gothic cousin of “Clue,” or of something like Branagh’s own “Dead Again,” which revolved around past lives. At the same time, amid the expected twists and unexpectedly gruesome murders, “A Haunting in Venice” is an empathetic portrayal of the death-haunted mentality of people from Branagh’s parents’ generation who came through World War II with psychic scars, wondering what had been won.  

The original Christie novel was published in 1969 and set in then-present-day Woodleigh Common, England. The adaptation transplants the story to Venice, sets it over 20 years earlier, gives it an international cast of characters thick with British expats, and retains just a few elements, including the violent death of a young girl in the recent past and the insinuating presence of an Agatha Christie-like crime novelist named Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who takes credit for creating Poirot’s reputation by making him a character in her writing. Aridane tracks down Poirot in a Venice apartment, where he’s retired from detective work and seemingly in existential crisis (though one he’d never discuss without being asked). He seems resolved to a life of aloneness, which is not the same as loneliness. He tells Ariadne he doesn’t have friends and doesn’t need any. 

Ariadne’s sales have slumped, so she draws Poirot back into sleuthing by pushing him to attend a Halloween Night seance at the aforementioned home, hoping to produce material that will give her another hit. The medium is a celebrity in her own right: Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a character named after the untrustworthy little girl in the original Christie story who claims to have witnessed a murder. Reynolds plans to communicate with a murder victim, Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson), the teenage daughter of the palazzo’s owner, former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), and hopefully find out who did the deed.

There are, of course, many others gathered in the palazzo. All become suspects in Alicia’s murder and subsequent cover-up killings that always ensue in these kinds of stories. Poirot locks himself and the rest of the ensemble in the palazzo and announces that no one can leave until he’s figured things out. The gallery of possibles includes a wartime surgeon named Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) who suffers from severe PTSD; Ferrier’s precocious son Leopold (Jude Hill, the young lead in Branagh’s “Belfast”), who is 12 going on 40 and asks unnerving questions; Rowena’s housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin); Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Alicia’s former boyfriend; and Mrs. Reynolds’ assistants Desdemona and Nicholas Holland (Emma Laird and Ali Khan), war refugees who are half-siblings.

It would be unsporting to say much about the rest of the plot. Reading the book won’t give anything important away because—even more so than in Branagh’s previous Poirot films—the kinship between source and adaptation is a bit like the later James Bond films, which might take a title, some character names and locations, and one or two ideas, and invent everything else. Green, who also wrote the recent “Death on the Nile” as well as “Blade Runner 2049” and much of the series “American Gods,” is a reliably excellent screenwriter of fresh stories inspired by canonical material. His work keeps one eye on commerce and the other on art, reminding nostalgia-motivated viewers in the “intellectual property” era of why they like something. At the same time, Green introduces provocative new elements and attempts a different tone or focus than audiences probably expected. (The introduction to the movie tie-in paperback of Christie’s novel has an introduction by Green that starts with the screenwriter confessing to a murder of “the book you are holding.”)

What’s most fascinating, from that standpoint, is how this Poirot mystery aligns itself with the popular culture being made in Allied countries after World War II. Classic post-war English-language films like “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Third Man,” “The Fallen Idol,” and mid-career Welles films like “Touch of Evil” and “The Trial” (to name just a few classics that Branagh seems keenly aware of) were not just engrossing, beautifully crafted entertainments, but illustrations of a pervasive collective feeling of moral exhaustion and soiled idealism—the result of living through a six-year period that showcased previously unimaginable horrors, including Stalingrad, Normandy, the mechanized extermination of the Holocaust, and the use of atomic bombs against civilians. And so the embittered Poirot is a seeming atheist who practically sneers at speaking to the dead. Green and Branagh even give him a monologue about his disillusionment that evokes comments made about Christie near the end of her life, and in the novel, about what she perceived as increasingly cruel tendencies in humanity as a whole, reflected in the sorts of crimes that were being committed.  

Aside from a few period-specific details and references, the source seems to exist outside of the time in which it was written. Branagh and Green’s movie goes in the opposite direction. It’s very much of a particular era: the late 1940s. The children in the film are orphans of war and post-war occupation (soldiers fathered some of them, then went back home without taking responsibility for their actions). There’s talk of “battle fatigue,” which is what PTSD was called during World War II; in the previous world war, they called it “shell shock.” The plot hinges on the economic desperation of native citizens, previously moneyed expatriates who are too emotionally and often financially shattered to recapture the way of life they had before the war, and the mostly Eastern European refugees who didn’t have much to start with and do the country’s grunt work. The overriding sense is that at least some of these characters would literally kill to get back to being whatever they were before.

Branagh was compared to Orson Welles early in his career for obvious reasons. He was a wunderkind talent who became internationally famous in his twenties and often starred in projects he originated and oversaw. He had one foot in theater and the other in film. He loved the classics (Shakespeare especially) and popular film genres (including musicals and horror). He had an impresario’s sense of showmanship and the ego to go with it. He’s never been more brazenly Wellesian than he is here. This film has a “big” feeling, as Welles’ films always did, even when they were made for pocket change. But it’s not full of itself, wasteful or pokey; like a Welles film, it gets in and out of every scene as fast as possible, and clocks in at 107 minutes, including credits. 

Film history aficionados may appreciate the many visual acknowledgments of the master’s filmography, including ominous views of Venice that reference Welles’ “Othello” and a screeching cockatoo straight out of “Citizen Kane.” At times, it feels as if Branagh conducted a seance and channeled Welles’ spirit, as well as that of other directors who worked in a black-and-white, expressionistic, Gothic-flavored, very Wellsian style (including “The Third Man” director Carol Reed and “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May” director John Frankenheimer). Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos have also mentioned Richard Brooks’s 1967 adaptation of “In Cold Blood” and Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” as influences. The movie deploys fish-eye lenses, dutch tilts, hilariously ominous close-ups of significant objects (including a creepy cuckoo clock), extreme low- and high-angles, and deep-focus compositions that arrange the actors from foreground to deep background, with window and door frames, sections of furniture, and sometimes actors’ bodies dicing up the shot to create additional frames-within-the-frame. 

Like post-millennial Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh movies, “A Haunting in Venice” was shot digitally (albeit in IMAX resolution) and commits to the idea if letting the medium be what it naturally is, rather than trying to force it to imitate something else. The low-light interior scenes make no attempt to simulate the look of film stock, depriving viewers of that “comfort food” feeling that comes from seeing a movie set in the past that tries for a “film look.” The result is somewhat unbalancing, in a fascinating way. The images have a mesmerizing hyper-clarity, but also a shimmering, almost otherworldly aspect, especially in tight close-ups where the actors’ eyes seem to have been lit from within.  

Branagh and editor Lucy Donaldson time the cuts so that the more ostentatious images (such as a rat crawling out of a stone gargoyle’s mouth, and Branagh and Fey seen through the metal screen of a fireplace, roaring flames in the foreground) are on-screen just long enough for the viewer to register what they see, and laugh at how far the movie is willing to go for the effect. Movies are rarely directed in this style anymore, in any format, and it’s a shame, because when they are, the too-muchness can be intoxicating.

Available in theaters on September 15th.