Venice’s Dark Secrets Unveiled: ‘A Haunting in Venice’ Movie Review

A Haunting in Venice

In the eerie opening scenes of Kenneth Branagh’s captivating “A Haunting in Venice,” as gondolas glide through winding waterways and the sun descends over one of the world’s most stunning cities, a familiar tune emerges – “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis.” It’s a surprising yet delightful choice of music, conjuring a vivid, cheerful image of early 20th-century America, a stark contrast to the movie’s setting on a dark and stormy Halloween night in 1947 Italy. As the story unfolds, the significance of this reference becomes clear when a character reminisces about finding solace during the war the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis is a moving example of how movies can uplift us when things are at their worst.

However, this allusion goes beyond mere Hollywood nostalgia. “Meet Me in St. Louis,” known as a Christmas classic, also features a remarkable Halloween sequence where unruly, unsupervised children wreak havoc in their neighborhood, setting fires in the streets and even nearly derailing a trolley car. This spirit of youthful anarchy serves as a clever reference point for “A Haunting in Venice,” a loose adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party,” which focuses on the mischievous deeds of children, both living and departed.

The story unfolds in a decaying Venetian palazzo, rumored to be haunted by the spirits of children who perished during a plague outbreak years ago. This makes it an atmospheric backdrop for a children’s Halloween gathering, though the main event is the adults-only after-party. The palazzo’s owner, Rowena Drake, a grieving opera soprano portrayed masterfully by Kelly Reilly, invites the renowned medium Mrs. Joyce Reynolds, played entrancingly by Michelle Yeoh, to conduct a séance. Their goal is to communicate with Rowena’s daughter, Alicia, who tragically drowned in the canal a year prior, foreshadowing more mysteries yet to come.

Kelly Reilly in the movie “A Haunting in Venice”.

Enter the renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh), now retired but still willing to take on cases that intrigue him or, in this case, challenge his strict rationalist beliefs. While tricks and treats for children may be acceptable, the notion of genuine occult phenomena is as intolerable to Poirot as a disorganized breakfast spread or an unkempt mustache. The filmmakers relish in irritating him this time, subverting the cozy conventions of classical detective stories with startling sound effects and gruesome imagery, steering the narrative toward full-blown supernatural horror.

The pleasure derived from this departure is contagious. “A Haunting in Venice,” gorgeously shot on location by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, stands as the best among Branagh’s three Christie adaptations. Unlike “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) and “Death on the Nile” (2022), which felt like opulent yet redundant retreads of beloved Christie tales, this film wisely departs from and ultimately enhances one of Poirot’s less memorable cases. In “Hallowe’en Party,” a 13-year-old girl drowns in an apple-bobbing tub; in the movie, it’s Poirot himself who is nearly pummeled to death, attacked by an assailant whose identity is as shocking as their ruthlessness.

The roster of victims, suspects, motives, and complications multiplies rapidly but remains remarkably clear. Rowena’s guests, not all of them invited, include an irate chef (Kyle Allen), a vigilant bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio), two enigmatic Hungarian travelers (Ali Khan and Emma Laird), a troubled doctor and his precocious son (Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, poignantly echoing their parent-child dynamic from Branagh’s “Belfast”). There’s also a fervently religious housekeeper (Camille Cottin), who, like Yeoh’s wide-eyed mystic, provides a faith-based explanation for the eerie occurrences at the palazzo, where children’s sing-song voices emanate from the darkness, chandeliers fall, and windows burst open inexplicably.

Poirot responds to these supernatural phenomena with a skeptical scowl, even when he cannot fully explain the hair-raising tricks playing on his senses. His longtime friend Ariadne Oliver (a welcome Tina Fey), a successful mystery novelist, shares his skepticism to some extent. In this iteration, Miss Oliver, portrayed with Fey’s acerbic wit and Michael Green’s sharp dialogue, is a more sardonic presence, keeping Poirot’s considerable ego in check while attempting to coax him out of retirement. She hopes to rekindle his sense of purpose and perhaps her own, finding fresh creative inspiration in an adventure filled with violent deaths and gothic splendor.

From left, Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, and Kenneth Branagh in the movie “A Haunting in Venice”.

Branagh triumphs in finding his stride, as do his talented collaborators, including production designer John Paul Kelly and costume designer Sammy Sheldon. Filming on location in Venice, a city that consistently bewitches the cinematic eye, the cinematographer and director continue to employ dramatic angles, such as a sideways-slanted shot of a piazza or an upward-gazing shot of an open doorway, to emphasize the eerie atmosphere and creeping madness. In this world of secret passageways and enveloping darkness, you can easily become lost.

With its paranormal phenomena and seemingly impossible crimes, “A Haunting in Venice” at times feels more aligned with the work of John Dickson Carr than Agatha Christie, even though the mystery’s solution, though clever, doesn’t quite match their signature ingenuity. What lingers from this movie isn’t the usual assortment of clues and red herrings, but a pervasive sense of grief rooted in the characters’ turbulent memories of the war just a few years prior.

Branagh’s Poirot, a World War I veteran, has previously unveiled his physical and psychological scars in this series. However, for the first time, his backstory feels genuinely resonant. It subtly parallels a case characterized by its rich human dimensions – deferred dreams, indelible traumas, grieving parents, and children – echoing the world beyond the mystery. Despite the overtly derivative supernatural elements, the ghosts haunting this film turn out to be hauntingly real.

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