In Review: A Haunting in Venice

There’s no mystery as to why the latest adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel is getting good reviews, Tim Robins discovers...

A Haunting in Venice (2023) - Poster

The Film: An unsettling supernatural thriller based on the novel Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie and directed by and starring Oscar winner Kenneth Branagh as famed detective Hercule Poirot, now in cinemas. A Haunting in Venice is set in eerie, post-World War Two Venice on All Hallows’ Eve, a terrifying mystery featuring the return of the celebrated sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Now retired and living in self-imposed exile in the world’s most glamorous city, Poirot reluctantly attends a séance at a decaying, haunted palazzo. When one of the guests is murdered, the detective is thrust into a sinister world of shadows and secrets…

The Review: I wasn’t looking forward to another attempt by Kenneth Branagh to capture the spirit of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, on the big screen. Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express contained some ham-fisted attempts to open out the action, while Death on the Nile provided an absurd secret origin for Poirot’s famous enormous moustaches. But A Haunting in Venice is a fun, spooky film that comes closer than the other movies to the Queen of Crime’s isolated situations seeped with secrets, strange goings on and whispers in the dark.

I have always had a soft spot for Agatha Christie’s works. I discovered her books, published in paperback by Fontana, on the same spinner rack as Target’s Doctor Who novelisations. My family were on holiday in Cornwall and I would run from our hotel, across a cliff top path and down into the nearby seaside village. There, a bookshop stocked “real” science fiction (including Sir Fred Hoyle’s unbelievably turgid Fifth Planet), Doctor Who books with bright, exciting covers by Chris Achilléos – and the more lurid covers of Christie’s murder mysteries, including the edition Death in the Clouds, which inspired the Doctor Who story “The Unicorn and The Wasp” (2008).

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

However, although I thought I’d read most of Christie’s works, I had no memory of Hallowe’en Party upon which A Haunting in Venice is, very loosely, based. The film transposes the events in the 1969 novel from England to Venice, keeping only a few of the plot points – a drowning or two, murders at a celebration of All Hallow’s Eve and the involvement of Christie’s surrogate crime writer, Arianne Oliver (Tina Fey).

Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has retired but his interest is piqued when Oliver offers him a chance to unmask a notorious medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who has been employed by opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) to contact the spirit of her daughter, Alicia who committed suicide seemingly at the urging of the spirits of orphans left to die during a plague.

Kelly Reilly as opera singer Rowena Drake in A Haunting in Venice

One of the film’s successes is its evocation of time and place. Screenwriter Michael Green chose Venice, believing “there’s no location more haunted than a Venetian palazzo”. The house’s interior was built in Pinewood and is a magnificently gloomy affair where piles of books merge with columns of brick in a musty, claustrophobic evocation of decaying grandeur. Apart from opening scenes overlooking Venice, the direction clings close to the orphanage’s exterior, giving us brief cut-aways to the encroaching storm as it moves in to batter the building and churns the waters of the canal.

Venice, as seen in A Haunting in Venice (2023)

It’s not just the house that is haunted. Dr Ferrier, the Drake family Doctor, has been left traumatised by his experiences of “liberating” a Nazi Concentration Camp. His son, Leopold, has retreated into reading the gloomy works of Edgar Allan Poe and says he can hear the voices of the dead children.

A Haunting in Venice (2023)

A Haunting in Venice has a foot in the past and the present. It is filled with the kind of jump scares that you’d expect in a modern horror movie. Even Poirot seems discombobulated and prone to seeing scary apparitions. The detective is more vulnerable than usual, the object of a near fatal attack. But it’s clear that Branagh is reveling in the role and, finally, makes Poirot his own.

This is a clever script that even contrives an additional “locked room” murder mystery among the proceedings. And, of course, there are the inevitable revelations of who did what and why. The groundwork for these has been prepared for but Christie’s books, and this screenplay, always leave me feeling that a case could reasonably be made for any of the characters to have carried out absolutely anything.

A Haunting in Venice walks the boards between a Fun House and a House of Horrors. Recasting Christie’s work into a different genre manifests a different kind of Poirot adventure, one that isn’t haunted by its source.

Tim Robins

• A Haunting in Venice is in cinemas across the UK now | Official Site

Categories: Features, Film, Other Worlds, Reviews

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1 reply

  1. I have to say I didn’t find “Fifth Planet” unbelievably turgid, partly because it’s by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle, the latter being the son of the more famous cosmologist. Like most of the Hoyles’ work it was refreshing to read SF by a real scientist exploring some heavy metaphysical ideas (see also “October the First is too Late” for a particularly interesting example that is still being quoted in philosophical discussions, e.g. on the “Everything List” – Admittedly the science in “Fifth Planet” is wrong, as I’m pretty sure they admit in the foreword – Helios would at the time of writing have been the second brightest object in the sky after the Sun – but that didn’t detract from something a bit more intellectual than the average SF, enjoyable though that is. Anyway, I enjoyed your review and will look out for the film – and as far as “Fifth Planet” goes, each to his/her own.

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