By Ann Hornaday
Grief casts a heavy pall in “A Haunting in Venice”, Kenneth Branagh's third instalment of his Hercule Poirot series.
As both a director and an actor, Branagh has sought to imbue the meticulously groomed Belgian detective – one of Agatha Christie's most beloved creations – with psychological depth, even darkness.
Since 2017's “Murder on the Orient Express” and last year's “Death on the Nile”, that aspiration has yielded some interesting artistic choices but, on a pure entertainment level, diminishing returns.
“A Haunting in Venice” opens to moody shots of St. Mark's Square in the titular city, set to strains of Hildur Gudnadottir's elegiac score; set in 1947, and moved to Italy from the English setting of Christie's novel “Halloween Party”, from which this film is adapted, “A Haunting in Venice” is, true to its title, awash in rue and regret, from the lingering traumas of World War II to Poirot's loss of his beloved Katherine, who lost her life in World War I.
Poirot has by now retired from detecting, happy to tend to his neatly arranged garden and avoid would-be clients.
His self-exile, enforced by an intimidating bodyguard played by Riccardo Scamarcio, is impenetrable, at least until he's visited by Ariadne Oliver, a tart-tongued mystery author portrayed with wry unflappability by Tina Fey.
With her delivery reminiscent of 1940s screwball comedies and an ever-present sceptical twinkle in her eye, Fey provides welcome levity in an otherwise pretty gloomy undertaking: When Ariadne invites Poirot to a séance at a supposedly cursed palazzo on All Hallows' Eve, “A Haunting in Venice” becomes a classic locked-room mystery, in this case featuring a spooky house; a couple of murders; and lots of bangs, clangs and jump scares, which Branagh heightens through weirdly canted camera angles, image-distorting lenses and a bone-rattling sound design.
Of course, the main event in any Agatha Christie thriller is the motley crew of suspects whose hidden motivations and connections eventually come to light.
Branagh has assembled a first-class ensemble to bring interest to what, in lesser hands, would simply be scenes of people talking.
Poirot – working in tandem with Ariadne – casts his first suspicions on Mrs Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a psychic – or is she a quack? – who has been summoned to the palazzo by the famous opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) to contact Drake's dead daughter Alicia.
A suitably vivid cast of supporting players have been invited or just show up to maximise the drama, including Dr Ferrier, plunged into depression by what he saw in the war, as well as his failure to save Alicia, and his precocious son Leopold – the two are played by Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, respectively, both of whom starred in Branagh's “Belfast” – and a devout housekeeper named Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), who tries to neutralise the supernatural proceedings by way of constant prayer.
Working from a script by Michael Green, Branagh gives “A Haunting in Venice” a melancholy and often genuinely scary sense of doom, filming in sepulchral tones and keeping the audience disoriented by way of visual non sequiturs and murky, dreamlike sequences.
It turns out that the visual language of the film isn't just for style's sake; the overall effect gives the movie a lugubriousness that feels increasingly oppressive as the night wears on and every character, it seems, is primed to deliver a sombre disquisition on death.
In other words, “A Haunting in Venice” isn't exactly a barrel of laughs. But that's no doubt as intended by Branagh, who seems intent on rescuing Poirot from the reassuring, too-cute world of “cosy” mysteries and grounding him in the real-life loss and emotional dislocation of the postwar eras from which he sprang.
His Poirot is more than the “little gray cells” that allow him to solve even a crime from beyond the grave. Connected to that prodigious brain, Branagh insists, beats a mournful and all-too-human heart.
∎ “A Haunting in Venice” is showing at cinemas nationwide.