Kenneth Branagh has again donned a bushy moustache and foreign accent for his third screen venture as Agatha Christie’s legendary sleuth Hercule Poirot.
A Haunting in Venice finds him in reclusive retirement in Venice until a novelist colleague Ariadne Oliver coaxes him out of his self-enforced seclusion by the prospect of investigating a suspicious death which occurred years earlier. Was it an accident or suicide or even murder?
This film is based on Christie’s novel ‘Hallowe’en Party’ and has previously been adapted for BBC TV. For fans of the murder mystery, an earlier version can be problematic. After all, the entertainment value is reduced when one already knows ‘whodunit’. However, Christie fans need not worry as it is a loose adaptation of the novel. Having seen the earlier version does not detract from the suspense as the plot line and characters diverge significantly from the original story.
Despite these changes, it contains all the familiar elements of a Poirot mystery. As many of us are aware, they:
1. All begin with a murder or suspicious death usually followed by one or two more;
2. There are many likely suspects each one with a significant motive;
3. The suspects all end up in the same place together with Poirot usually in some exotic venue;
4. During this period all sorts of discoveries are made with Poirot exposing the culprit or culprits.
Add to the mix one or two surprising plot twists at the end and you have the standard Christie formula. Although this pattern is a regular feature of most of her murder mysteries, it does not wear thin. There is always the variation of plot and a diversity of usually eccentric characters to render the story entertaining and suspenseful and this film does not disappoint.
Kenneth Branagh stars in and directs A Haunting in Venice, 2023.
In addition, this version has an extra element – that of the supernatural – which enhances the mystery. The scene of the crime is a supposedly haunted palazzo, formerly a hospital for children who were left to die by negligent staff. This is the venue for a seance by a famous medium with relevant information supposedly from beyond the grave. Poirot’s attendance at this seance is the catalyst for all the revelations that follow.
There are two mysteries to be solved which run parallel to each other. Firstly there is the unexplained death which occurs well before the action of the film and leads to other unfortunate consequences; then there are the supernatural, otherworldly elements that dominate the story. Unexplained phenomena occur in this decaying palazzo lit by candles and oil lamps and, on at least one occasion, even Poirot himself gets spooked. Are these menacing events motivated by a paranormal phenomenon or is it just plain trickery and manipulation by a skilful villain or villains?
A Haunting in Venice. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, 2023.
Despite what is unfolding in this spacious and dingy palazzo, Poirot remains a strict realist and rejects any non-rational, unscientific explanations for what is occurring. Is he right? Is there there some spooky unseen force at work? Or are people being duped and manipulated by clever charlatans? These conflicting questions enhance the suspense right up until the final revelations.
Of course being Agatha Christie, things are not always quite what they seem and there is more than one surprise at the end. Furthermore, the villain of the piece tends to be the most unlikely suspect (making them the most likely suspect!). Despite these by now familiar elements, one can still be left guessing until the very end. The fact that the Christie brand can still attract big budget screen adaptions of her work nearly 50 years after her death is testimony to her skill as a mystery writer.
The screen professionals involved build on the original novel without compromising the suspense or atmosphere. The film still retains the flavour of an original Agatha Christie mystery thanks to the casting, location, sets and skilful editing. Furthermore, Kenneth Branagh shines as as the legendary sleuth. With each screen incarnation, he seems to get better as the eccentric Belgian private detective. It is clear he is making this his role his own.
A Haunting in Venice both confirms Agatha Christie’s legendary status and ensures the popularity of the murder mystery on the big screen.