A HAUNTING IN VENICE finds master detective Hercule Poirot (director Kenneth Branagh) in a somber mood. Two world wars and first-hand knowledge of the evil that men (and women) do have prompted him to become a virtual recluse in Venice, where swarms of eager would-be clients are forcefully rebuffed by the formidable bodyguard (Vincenzo Di Stefano) he has hired. It is a quiet, orderly life of vegetable gardening, twice-daily pastry deliveries, and respite from that ci-mentioned evil. It is a happy life, but not, as is pointed out to him, a fulfilling one. And so we come to the nub of what Mr. Branagh wishes to explore with this elegant adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Halloween Party,” re-imagined as a ghostly tale about hauntings psychological as well as supernatural.
It is Halloween day in 1947 when Poirot’s old friend, whodunnit author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) makes her way past the bodyguard to lure Poirot out of his self-imposed retirement with that salient observation about fulfillment. Her writing career has stalled, and she hopes to rev it up again by exposing a celebrated medium, Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who has the distinction of having been prosecuted under the witchcraft laws still on the books back in England. By appealing to his ego, she convinces Poirot to attend a Halloween party given by Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) in her crumbling palazzo where the ghosts of murdered children run wild. Rowena, a retired opera star, is desperate to contact the spirit of her daughter, Alicia, who may or may to have committed suicide by jumping into a canal. Hence, after the party, there will be a séance conducted by Mrs. Reynolds during which Poirot will spot the tricks Ariadne has missed that are used by the medium to convince the gullible that she is in touch with the hereafter.
Drama abounds even before the séance, as Alicia’s ex-fiancé, Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen) arrives, Alicia’s doctor, Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) battles shell-shock and his violent dislike of Maxime. After the séance, when someone is murdered, everyone, including Poirot’s bodyguard, the hyper-religious housekeeper (Camille Cottin) who sees Satan everywhere but most especially in Mrs. Reynolds, and Mrs. Reynolds’ eerie assistants (Emma Laird and Ali Khan) come under suspicion. Even the doctor’s precocious son, Leopold (Jude Hill), a solemn boy who prefers Poe to bobbing for apples as a suitable way of celebrating the holiday, seems just a little shady.
It is a dark and stormy night in Venice as the suspects are cut off from the world when the phone lines go down, and Poirot locks the only means of egress until he has solved the case. Lightning flashes, and the shadows might be more than they seem as strange noises erupt from the palazzo, and light fixtures do dramatic things on cue. Branagh maintains a sense of lurking danger, only rarely using the standard jump-and-scare trope. When he does, though, it serves to demonstrate just how effective it can be when handled with delicate restraint. He also moves the camera with a subtly persistent sense of vertigo, swimming to odd angles that are striking compositions as well as adding to the eeriness of the atmosphere. The plot is wickedly clever, of course, and photographed with a lush, color-saturated chiaroscuro.
This goes beyond the usual stock characters found in the genre, with performances that are nuanced. The actors layer an air of, ahem, mystery and grief that brings an intensity and even urgency that goes beyond needing to find the killer before he or she strikes again. It becomes a satisfying character study with unexpected pathos as a descant to the action.
By the end of A HAUNTING IN VENICE, the sun has come out, and many, but not all, ghosts have been put to rest. Branagh, at the height of his directorial powers, has crafted a bittersweet paean to the necessity of going on, conscious of, but not immobilized into stasis, by the past.