Time to Let Go of Your Ghosts
Kenneth Branagh’s reimagining of Agatha Christie’s immense universe has a new installment under its belt in A Haunting in Venice. The year is 1947, ten years after the events of Death on the Nile. Famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has been in retirement in Venice, ignoring the long line of potential clients congregating around his lodgings. His seclusion from the outside world is broken only by the pastry deliveries he accepts and his occasional trips into town for food.
That is, of course, until mystery author and old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) shows up on his doorstep demanding to see him. She presents him with the intriguing opportunity to debunk a famous spirit medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), whom she has not yet been able to prove as a fraud. Poirot, reluctant to break his solitude, eventually agrees to attend one of her seances, which is to take place after a Halloween party for the local children.
Things quickly go south, and the bodies begin to pile up as Poirot struggles to rationalize the world of spirits that he finds himself embroiled in.
Stunning Visual Techniques
As with the previous installments of the series, the visual aesthetics of the film are the most captivating part. Set in a rainy, overcast Venice on Halloween night, the setting allows for fog, water, and blue-toned lighting to cast a somber mood over the whole film. The mansion that most of the story takes place in is an architectural masterpiece, a behemoth of a building with plenty of opportunities for artful shots. The old archways, sweeping staircases, and labyrinth of rooms make it just as confusing for the audience to navigate, getting swept up in the adrenaline of the murder mystery.
That being said, there are quite a few angles in the film that are disconcerting and jarring. The use of the Dutch angle, or a tilted horizon, is so extreme and so frequently used that it almost breaks the immersion, especially when it is cut to a seemingly random location inside or outside of the mansion. Once you notice it, you’ll never stop. The angle is often so severe that it makes it confusing to figure out where it’s showing or what is actually happening. Whether that was intentional on Branagh’s part or not, it seems a bit egregious and unnecessary. There were also moments where the camera seemed to be handheld, giving it a shaky quality that juxtaposed the smooth movements through most of the film and giving some awkward, go-pro-vibe shots of Poirot moving through the hallways.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some masterful shots throughout the movie – a theme that’s emphasized through the composition of shots is Poirot’s loneliness. Because the mansion is sprawling and empty, Poirot often appears in a frame with a lot of empty space behind and around him. Most of the time, he is also at the edge of the frame, showing that his character is not necessarily the center of attention – the crime, the house, and his loneliness are bigger focuses than his actual method of solving the case. There is also a moment where the camera tracks Poirot walking towards it, then flips as he passes under it, keeping the viewer essentially suspended upside down to watch the detective walk away. It’s an interesting moment visually – a lot of the movie seems like an experimentation in various angles, lighting, and themed messages that could be portrayed through the composition of a shot.
There were also transitions that used the same pattern, like a splash or a circular composition, to signify the passing of time or changing of locations that were incredibly effective and creative. The use of shadows in a few scenes harkened back to the traditions of German Expressionism, which was focused on the usage and symbolism of stark light and dark contrasts. From a film student’s perspective, it was fascinating to break down exactly how the camera was being used to tell the story – while not all audiences will do the same, it’s a cool little thing to keep an eye on for anyone who is interested.
The Story of Adaptation
Though not referenced in the title itself, the film is based on Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party, which was rather negatively received by readers at the time and was also adapted into a 2010 film. Though A Haunting in Venice doesn’t line up with the book completely, many elements remain the same.
In the novel, a girl named Joyce Reynolds loudly boasts to the group of people setting up the Halloween party that she witnessed a murder once, though she didn’t realize it at the time. Towards the end of the party, she is discovered drowned in the tub used for apple bobbing. Ariadne Oliver is present at the party, and sensing more to the murder than the proposed theories of a sick/crazy/perverted person committing the foul deed, she calls in her trusted friend Hercule Poirot.
The theme of apples is carried across both versions of the story, with Ariadne positively obsessed with them in the novel. There are a fair amount of characters who share names or similar personality traits – the spirit medium in the film is named Joyce Reynolds, and the character of Rowena Drake is largely the same in both works. Leopold, too, shares a name with a book character, though with a vastly different home life and slightly altered personality. Apple bobbing becomes a factor in the film, though perhaps not to the extent of the novel. And, in the biggest departure from the source, the story never leaves the walls of the mansion, save for the very beginning and end of the film, before and after the murders take place.
The quality of an adaptation, of course, is not beholden to its fidelity to the source. It is interesting to note the parallels, however, in a way to make sense of where the story originated and where it deviated into its own tale. While talking too much about the comparison would give away massive spoilers, it’s not a bad idea to read the novel for yourself if you’re curious. Unlike the previous two movies, this one seemed to deviate the most from its source, using original material to add some twists and zest into an otherwise middle-quality mystery novel.
A Horror/Mystery Mix
Genre crossovers aren’t very common in the cinematic world of mystery, though pitting detectives against supernatural forces has been rather common in the past. From novels exploring the “what-ifs” of Sherlock Holmes encountering Dracula or Lovecraftian creatures to detectives facing possible ghostly activity, audiences have always craved stories where the world’s greatest detectives are forced to explain the unexplainable. Many stories choose to have the detectives find a rational explanation for all of the “paranormal” encounters, often with a completely human character being the perpetrator of the tricks and illusions. It isn’t often that those supernatural quandaries are posed in a horror-themed atmosphere, yet A Haunting in Venice chooses to take the horror premise and run with it.
Granted, there are quite a few scary moments. Poirot, as shown in the trailer, appears to speak with a girl who does not actually exist or who cannot be seen by others, and there are quite a few moments within and without the seance where ghostly voices, spectors in mirrors, and unexplainable forces and movement indicate the presence of something otherworldly. There are some terrific jumpscares, and the use of audio in the theaters allows for the tracking of a ghost girl’s laugh from one side of the room to the other. The music adds to the suspense, as does the superb lighting and unnatural camera angles. There are also quite a few allusions to the stories of Edgar Allen Poe – not only is he known for his dark, disturbing horror stories, but he’s also considered the father of the detective novel.
However, some may feel that the horror aspect doesn’t go far enough. While the spooky moments are nice, much of the visceral horror comes not from ghosts but from the methods of murder. Regardless, the attempt at such a crossover can be nothing but appreciated, as not many films tend to bridge the gap.
Characters and Theme
The characters in this film fall into the tropes of traditional Agatha Christie works. Of course, most are based on or completely modeled after characters from the source. Others fit character types that are seen often in Christie’s novels. Leopold, in particular, is the sort of precocious, intelligent, and possibly dangerously cunning child echoed in films such as Crooked House. Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) is the typical grief-stricken mother, perpetually mourning her lost child, almost to the point of obsession. Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin) is the overly religious housemaid/governess in the style of Pilar Estravados in Murder on the Orient Express and countless other classic mystery characters. Even if they don’t fit the standard tropes, there were characters that simply weren’t fleshed out in a way to make them stand out. The sibling duo working for Reynolds… existed, for sure, but their story wasn’t spectacular or astonishing. The sequence where audiences are ping-ponged between the two of them telling their separate versions of working for Reynolds was creative and engaging, but otherwise, they were left feeling a bit flat.
The one character who did seem the most unique and complex was Leopold’s father. A war-torn veteran with, presumably, some form of PTSD and other mental health challenges, Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) presents a character that people can relate to and/or empathize with. His backstory is slowly built upon, explaining his behaviors and motivations, and watching Leopold take more care of his father than his father seems to take of him is heart-wrenching. Had all the characters been built up the way he was, perhaps the tension would have been a bit more effective. As it was, some of the characters ended up being completely forgettable.
That being said, there’s a comfort in familiarity. The story itself is charming, the characters are well-acted (even Tina Fey’s Ariadne Oliver, whom people were a bit skeptical of), and it all comes together to create an intriguing mystery. Poirot also gets a bit more depth in this film, though not much – his loneliness, as mentioned previously, is extremely highlighted by the cinematography and some of the lines of dialogue spoken by his friend Ariadne. He also gets the chance to expound upon his views on religion in a brash outpouring of sentiment, unlike the detective. After all of the suffering he saw in the war and all the crime he has encountered throughout the years, his belief in a benevolent god or any sort of interdimensional spiritual being has disappeared because no god would want to see its creation harmed in such ways. The film then proceeds to make him question his beliefs – whether or not he does change his mind must be discovered by watching the film.
Worth the Wait?
Personally, this film seems like the weakest of the three installments. Though the original parts of its storyline are greatly appreciated, and the supernatural topic presents some intriguing puzzles for the detective to solve, some of the character tropes feel rather predictable. Such a thing is bound to happen in the world of Agatha Christie, but distancing its story from the original novel presented opportunities to break out of the standard Golden Age mystery tropes – opportunities that ultimately weren’t acted on. The references to Edgar Allen Poe’s stories were a nice touch and a nod to the origin of the detective novel, as well as foreshadowing how the world of the fantastic and strange was to mix with the detective genre. While the visuals were stunning and really added to the mood, some of the camera angles were jarring and disorienting. And some of us couldn’t help but laugh at one of the more absurd methods of murder.
Overall, though, the film is worth a watch. It gives more insight into the mind of Poirot, offers some fascinating ideas about religion, gender, and the world we live in (as reflected by a past time period), and the cast is an extraordinary list of talent. Besides, how can you ignore a film that symbolically came out on the birthday of its creator, Dame Agatha Christie?
A Haunting in Venice is playing in theaters now!
A Haunting In Venice (2023) 20th Century Studios Official Trailer