Kenneth Branagh is a man out of time. He fashions himself as a devotee of the greats, a lightning rod for the titanic figures from the past to transpose their works into the present. From Shakespeare to Christie, he’s been most comfortable filling well-worn shoes and legacies rather than breaking from tradition. For A Haunting in Venice, he seems to have realized that he’s felt *too* comfortable. Branagh’s third Poirot mystery is a stripped-down affair compared to prior installments.
Finding himself in retirement from detective work and wandering the streets of post-war Venice, the great detective Hercules Poirot is pulled back into the sleuthing world after Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), an old ally, alerts him to a crime. The crime, as it turns out, is not of passion, but from the beyond. Dubious medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) is called upon by the reclusive Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) to commune with her dead daughter on All Hallow’s Eve, said to have been claimed by Drake’s haunted palazzo. The house is occupied by a nervy and suspicious cast who is already on edge before one of them dies a grisly and supernatural death; what follows confronts the realist detective with the possibility of a world beyond his.
In this haunted sequel, the glossy glitz and glamour of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile have been replaced with the harsh tactility of stark interiors. Its ensemble, wracked with guilt over their own ghosts, slinks around halls as horror and the unknown intrude into the life of Poirot and his suspects. The film around them proves a mature turn for Branagh and an admittedly frightful delight.
Stepping away from the flash and tacky modernization of the previous two entries is no mistake. As opposed to Branagh’s run of glossier fare (of which 2022’s Death on the Nile, shot in 2019 before the 2021 release of Belfast, is a part), this entry reads as both a response to the cooped-up changes forced upon him by the pandemic and his much-awaited success at the 2022 Academy Awards. Paring down the usual star-studded ensemble to a select few while trading in magnificent ships and train carriages for dark and damp halls reveals the larger game at play.
Just as Poirot must be jolted back into his old self through a particularly taxing case, Branagh seems to resent the rut he has fallen into. By taking away some of his fancy toys, he’s challenged himself to go back to basics. With a lesser-known story to adapt (Christie's “Hallowe’en Party"), Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have given themselves more freedom to play around. The result is an audacious and sober movie, more tense and mysterious than anything they’ve done before.
Dispatching with the initial murder rather early on, Haunting makes it clear that it is less interested in murder than its literal and figurative haunt. In keeping with the newfound genre trappings, there are jumpscares aplenty, none of which are all that effective, for Branagh is not interested in their brief pops, either. Branagh and Green are occupied with faith and loss inherent to this ensemble, found mostly in dialogue between Poirot and his suspects, but more strikingly conveyed through the frame.
This is Branagh’s most interesting directorial work in ages. He relishes the opportunity to unsettle and spook, but is more concerned with instilling fear in the atmosphere; jump scares need not be effective when the stretched-out silences between them are far more frightening. Empty halls traversed by suspects are shot with zeal, although not with the hyper and over-eager excitability they had been during Murder and Death. Branagh seems to be reinvigorated, strapping the camera to himself in one chase sequence and playing around in every other. There are no flashy pans or digital backdrops to distract, just a severe camera hovering around victims in ghost-like fashion. Darkness fills the frame with haunted faces as accents, shadows and cloaks loom like apparitions. It’s a joy to see Branagh excited about this character and this world that he clearly loves so dearly, and even more so to see him test his limits as a filmmaker.
Secretly, Branagh’s true passion may lie with these paperback mysteries. Belfast, an overwrought bore often perceived as a “one for me” effort for which the Academy finally lobbed him a trophy, now feels like a “one for them” effort in the wake of Haunting. His strengths have always lied in showmanship rather than subtle beauties, anyway. Branagh is also, not so secretly, a sentimentalist. In his showmanship, he harbors a deep love. This love is often ill-defined, as are many factors of these films, but it’s ever-present in the running threads of the medium’s assistants and the doctor’s son. Stringing small clues along, he lays the groundwork for an emotional payoff that, however small in scale, certainly draws tears.
Debates over the worth of sentiment rage on as they have since the creation of any open forum, but in a Branagh mystery, it feels only natural. The unabashed sentiment works in Haunting where it may not have in prior installments because of its reinvigorated filmmaker and a cast whose performances feel properly heightened to the genre. Particularly with more developed source material, the tone resonates. When a weary veteran is excited to scare and provoke and entertain, an audience will reciprocate enthusiasm.
Grappling with guilt via ghost in a Christie adaptation is quietly daring, and Branagh is up to the task. Keeping the genre of smaller, elegant mysteries alive is one thing, but to breathe life into one is another. Brimming with life – ironic enough for the most somber of the current trilogy – this is a mystery fully engaged with the spectacle required. It is also tapped into a real emotional throughline that brings the series to new heights. Poirot and Branagh seem to have gotten their groove back. If this haunt is a sign of what road these two may follow, it’s sure to be a good one.