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 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 learn who did the deed.
There are, of course, many others gathered in the palazzo. All become suspects in Alicia’s murder as well as the subsequent cover-up killings that 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.