A Haunting tale of Murder

Kenneth Branagh’s latest Poirot adventure, very loosely based on Agatha Christie’s Halloween Party, is a significant departure from the star filled travelogues that preceded it, and is all the better for it. While the essential ingredients are the same, A Haunting in Venice is shorter, sharper and an altogether more enjoyable romp than its predecessors.

The setting of Venice still allows for some picture postcard cinematography, but for the most part the action takes place within the claustrophobic confines of an elegantly dilapidated waterfront palace. There’s a significant difference in casting policy too, as proper acting trumps star power. Branagh returns to the screen with his usual prissy, moustache-twiddling Poirot, but this time his cast invest their roles with something akin to genuine characterisation. Tina Fey is knowingly acerbic as crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, while Kelly Reilly’s morose singer Rowena Drake is genuinely moving. Michelle Yeoh’s society medium is suitably other worldly, while Jude Hill (who so brilliantly played Branagh’s younger self in Belfast) is marvellously creepy as Leopold, the son of a shell-shocked father.

Nicolas Roeg captured the stark, ghostly atmosphere of Venice in his masterpiece Don’t Look Now, and it’s never been bettered. Branagh must surely have had that film in mind while directing this one, teetering as it does, so closely to the overtly supernatural, notwithstanding Poirot’s rationalization of its spooky goings on. The crime itself is satisfyingly resolved, as you would expect, but is almost incidental to the darkly atmospheric setting and tone. The film engenders an increasingly unnerving sense that something formidable is lurking just beneath the murky, swirling waters of Venice, its centuries old dark secrets investing what might otherwise have been a formulaic murder mystery with a deliciously irresistible dread.