Third time’s the charm for Kenneth Branagh’s whodunnit franchise.
As summer winds down and it finally begins to cool off, we enter a timeframe before we start to see the Oscar contenders make their first impressions. Much like January, this time of the year can be an easy write-off for studios to dump films they’re not entirely confident in. While that may be the case, and on top of the uncertainty of films coming out later this year with the on-going strikes, Kenneth Branagh is back with another directed (and starring) tale as Agatha Christie’s Belgian Hercule Poirot in A Haunting in Venice. You might remember its sequel, Death on the Nile, came out last year. However, after a few delays related to COVID-19 and one of its stars, the film was dumped in theaters in early February 2022 with mixed reviews and an underwhelming box office. Because of the issues Branagh had to deal with that were completely out of his control, A Haunting in Venice feels like an “IOU” from the studio. It’s a good thing the studio greenlit A Haunting in Venice, because it turns out it presents a different vibe than the previous two entries in this whodunnit franchise, making for the best entry in the franchise (so far).
Retired and living in Venice, former detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) spends his time enjoying the sights, sounds, and food around him. Despite being hounded by locals wanting him to help solve their mysteries, Poirot is reluctant to work again. However, when an old friend (Tina Fey) visits him and requests that he attend a séance to try to figure out an unsolved, year-old murder, he takes her up on it. But what starts as an evening with Poirot trying to figure out the tricks of the séance leads to something much darker and more sinister beneath it all.
Clocking in at just over 90 minutes (a welcome revelation in an era where films seem to be getting a bit too long), A Haunting in Venice wastes no time in establishing its story and characters once the film enters its primary location within a house in Venice. While lean in its presentation by being contained in one household, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have more than enough tricks up their sleeves to keep this mystery clever, in addition to being spooky (something we didn’t see in the previous two films). But what really elevates the film is the cast surrounding Branagh’s mustachioed detective (who still delivers the goods).
Two actors recognizable to viewers in big franchises both in film and TV get to show off their range and demonstrate what they can be in roles vastly different from those for which they are most known. Jamie Dornan of Fifty Shades franchise continues to carve out a niche in the drama genre with another great performance as a doctor. The best performance in the film, however, is by Kelly Reilly as a still-grieving mother. Reilly, whose infamous character in the most popular TV series currently running right now (Yellowstone) has gone off the rails because of the show’s absurd writing, shows how talented she is outside the Western series that has enhanced her stardom. It serves as a reminder of what she is and can be given the right character and right script. There are other performances of note here, including a welcome sight of Tina Fey as friend (and author) to Poirot, along with Michelle Yeoh as an individual from the center of the film’s séance. We also can’t forget about Jude Hill, the best part of the 2021’s Belfast film, who plays the son of Jamie Dornan’s character once again.
It’s easy to look at A Haunting in Venice (and the entire series) as a notch or two below the other noticeable whodunnit franchise, Knives Out. However, what Branagh and company craft here makes for an enjoyable time to gear audiences up for a spooky season. You could label this franchise as the diet soda version of Knives Out. But I’ll take the diet soda of this franchise over many films you see released on a weekly basis.