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A Haunting in Venice
Review by Rich Cline |
dir Kenneth Branagh
scr Michael Green
prd Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund, Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott
with Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey, Kelly Reilly, Jamie Dornan, Camille Cottin, Riccardo Scamarcio, Jude Hill, Kyle Allen, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Rowan Robinson
release UK/US 15.Sep.23
23/UK 20th Century 1h43
Is it streaming?
Agatha Christie's novel Hallowe'en Party is loosely adapted into a gothic horror, as Kenneth Branagh assembles another starry cast of suspicious characters. Venice looks terrific, as cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos plays with colour, light and shadows while a freak-out mystery unfolds on a dark and stormy night. After the artificial misstep of Death on the Nile, Branagh makes sure the plot is water-tight, and everything is more grounded this time.
It's 1947 and Hercule Poirot (Branagh) has retired, with his privacy protected by assistant Vitale (Scamarcio). Then mystery novelist Ariadne (Fey) arrives with an invitation to a Halloween party at the decaying palazzo of Rowena (Reilly), whose daughter died mysteriously a year ago. The psychic Mrs Reynolds (Yeoh) is on hand to conduct a seance, and Ariadne wants the sceptic Poirot to uncover her fakery. But things quickly take a turn, and a body appears skewered on a statue. Naturally, everyone has a motive, and Poirot is feeling unusually haunted by what's happening around him.
Among those present and clearly up to something are Rowena's lovelorn doctor friend Leslie (Dornan), who is suffering from post-war trauma, and his precocious preteen son Leopold (Hill). Housekeeper Olga (Cottin) is a former nun who's afraid of everything, while the late daughter's fiance Maxime (Allen) is a hotheaded American who loathes everyone. Mrs Reynolds has sibling assistants (Khan and Laird), war refugees with big dreams for their future. And then there's the house itself, with its creepy corridors, expansive rooms, desolate roof garden and a notorious curse.
While the characters are larger-than-life and hyper-emotional, the actors manage to maintain natural rhythms in their performances, so each is easy to identify with. Fey has the scene-stealing role as the cynical writer who continually punctures Poirot's pomposity. Branagh nicely layers some internal doubts beneath Poirot's confident exterior, confronting his own personal trauma in a situation that isn't what it seems to be. And Yeoh has the most textured role as a woman who is both charlatan and true believer.
The filmmakers make terrific use of the setting and period, evoking Venice's history and profound sense of magic while adding underlying references that are darkly sobering. Nerve-jangling jolts abound, but the special effects remains remarkably restrained, adding to a horrific vibe without taking over. There are nods along the way to scary movie genres, including haunted houses and J-horror nastiness. The revelation of whodunit is enjoyably complicated. And there's just enough soul-searching among the characters to add meaningful subtext.
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© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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