A Haunting in Venice movie review (2023) | Roger Ebert (2024)

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A Haunting in Venice movie review (2023) | Roger Ebert (1)

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"A Haunting in Venice" is the best of Kenneth Branagh's Hercule Poirot movies. It's also one ofBranagh'sbest, period, thanks to the way Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green dismantle and reinventthe 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, Londonsoundstages, 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.

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The original Christie novel was published in 1969 and set in then-present-dayWoodleigh 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 fewelements, 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 Veniceapartment, 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 originalChristie story who claims to have witnessed a murder. Reynolds plans tocommunicate 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 thesubsequent 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.

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It would be unsporting to say much about the rest of the plot. Reading the book won't give anything important awaybecause—even more so than in Branagh's previous Poirot films—the kinship between source and adaptation is a bit like the later James Bond films, which might take a title, some character names and locations, and one or two ideas, and invent everything else. Green, who also wrote the recent "Death on the Nile" as well as "Blade Runner 2049" and much of the series "American Gods," is a reliably excellent screenwriter offresh stories inspired by canonical material. His workkeeps one eye on commerce and theother on art. He regularly remindsnostalgia-motivated viewers in the "intellectual property" era of why they like something. At thesame time, he introduces provocative new elements andattempts a different tone or focus thanaudiences probably expected. (The introduction to the movie tie-in paperback of Christie's novel has an introduction by Green that starts with himconfessing to a murder of "the book you are holding.")

Accordingly, this Poirot mystery aligns itself with popular culture made in Allied countries after World War II. Classic post-war English-language films like "The Best Years of Our Lives," "The Third Man," "The Fallen Idol," and mid-career Welles films like "Touch of Evil" and "The Trial" (to name just a few classics that Branagh seems keenly aware of) were not just engrossing, beautifully crafted entertainments, but illustrations of a pervasive collective feeling of moral exhaustion and soiled idealism—the result of living through a six-year period that showcased previously unimaginable horrors, including Stalingrad, Normandy, the mechanized extermination of the Holocaust, and the use of atomic bombs against civilians. And so the embitteredPoirot is a seemingatheistwho practically sneers at speaking to the dead. Green and Branagh even give him a monologue about his disillusionment that evokes comments made about Christie near the end of her life, and in the novel,about what she perceived as increasingly cruel tendencies in humanity as a whole, reflected in the sorts of crimes that werebeing committed.

Asidefrom a few period-specificdetails and references, the source seems to exist outside of the time in which it was written.Branagh and Green'smovie goes in the opposite direction. It'svery much ofthe late 1940s.The children in the film are orphans of war and post-war occupation (soldiers fathered some of them, then went back homewithouttakingresponsibilityfor their actions).There's talk of "battle fatigue," which is what PTSD was called during World War II; in the previous world war, they called it "shell shock."The plot hinges on the economic desperation of native citizens, previously moneyed expatriates who are too emotionally and often financially shattered to recapture the way of life they had before the war, andthemostly Eastern European refugees who didn't have much to start with and do the country's grunt work. The overriding sense is that some of these characters would literally kill to get back to being what theywere.

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Branagh was compared to Orson Welles early in his career for obvious reasons. He was a wunderkind talent who became internationally famous in his twenties and often starred in projects he originated and oversaw. He had one foot in theater and the other in film. He loved the classics (Shakespeare especially) and popular film genres (including musicals and horror). He had an impresario's sense of showmanship and the ego to go with it. He's never been more brazenly Wellesian than he is here. This film has a "big" feeling, as Welles' films always did, even when they were made for pocket change. But it's not full of itself, wasteful or pokey; like a Welles film,it gets in and out of every scene as fast as possible, and clocks in at 107 minutes, including credits.

Film history aficionados may appreciate the many visualacknowledgments of the master's filmography, including ominous views of Venice that reference Welles' "Othello" and a screeching co*ckatoo straight out of "Citizen Kane." At times, it feels as if Branagh conducted a seance and channeled Welles' spirit, as well as that of other directors who worked in a black-and-white, expressionistic, Gothic-flavored, very Wellesian style (including "The Third Man" director Carol Reed and "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seven Days in May" director John Frankenheimer). Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos have also mentioned Richard Brooks's 1967 adaptation of "In Cold Blood" and Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaidan" as influences. The movie deploys fish-eye lenses, dutch tilts, hilariously ominous close-ups of significant objects (including a creepy cuckoo clock), extreme low- and high-angles, and deep-focus compositions that arrange the actors from foreground to deep background, with window and door frames, sections of furniture, and sometimes actors' bodies dicing up the shot to createadditional frames-within-the-frame.

Like post-millennial Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh movies, "A Haunting in Venice" was shot digitally (albeit in IMAX resolution) and letsthe medium be what it naturally is. The low-light interior scenes make no attempt to simulate film stock, depriving viewers of that "comfort food" feeling that comes from seeing a movie set in the past that uses actual film or tries for a "film look." The result is unbalancing, in a fascinating way. The images have a mesmerizing hyper-clarity and ashimmering, otherworldly aspect.In tight close-ups ofactors, their eyes seem to have been lit from within.

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Branagh and editor Lucy Donaldson time the cuts so that the more ostentatious images (such as a rat crawling out of a stone gargoyle's mouth, and Poirot and Ariadneseen through the metal screen of a fireplace, flames in the foreground) are on-screen just long enough for the viewer to register what they see, and laugh at how far the movie is willing to go for the effect. Movies are rarely directed in this style anymore, in any format,and it's a shame, because when they are, the too-muchness can be intoxicating.

Available in theaters on September 15th.

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Film Credits

A Haunting in Venice movie review (2023) | Roger Ebert (9)

A Haunting in Venice (2023)

Rated PG-13for some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements.

104 minutes

Cast

Kenneth Branaghas Hercule Poirot

Kyle Allenas Maxime Gerard

Camille Cottinas Olga Seminoff

Jamie Dornanas Dr Leslie Ferrier

Tina Feyas Ariadne Oliver

Jude Hillas Leopold Ferrier

Ali Khanas Nicholas Holland

Emma Lairdas Desdemona Holland

Kelly Reillyas Rowena Drake

Michelle Yeohas Joyce Reynolds

Dylan Corbett-Baderas Baker

Amir El-Masryas Alessandro Longo

Fernando Pilonias Vincenzo Di Stefano

Director

  • Kenneth Branagh

Writer (based upon the novel "Hallowe'en Party" by)

  • Agatha Christie

Writer

  • Michael Green

Cinematographer

  • Haris Zambarloukos

Editor

  • Lucy Donaldson

Composer

  • Hildur Guðnadóttir

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