“Murder in Venice”
Director: Kenneth Branagh
England/USA/Italy – 2023
“Murder in Venice” is a significant improvement compared to its synthetic predecessor “Death on the Nile” (2022), which bore the strong impression of having been recorded in a studio in England – while the exotic surroundings were largely created on computer . It was also a story filmed several times before, which contributed to the whole thing feeling like a rather pointless rerun. To quote my own review of “Death on the Nile”: “Agatha Christie wrote 33 novels, two plays and over 50 short stories featuring Poirot, so Branagh had plenty of material to choose from. Next time, I hope he films a story that hasn’t already been told to death.”
That is exactly what Branagh has done with “Murder in Venice”, which has not actually been made into a film until now. The story is loosely based on one of Christie’s least popular Poirot novels: “Hallowe’en Party” from 1969, which in its time received harsh criticism from critics and was branded a major disappointment. Which gives Branagh the opportunity to take great creative liberties with the source material; in fact so large that “Murder in Venice” can mostly be considered a newly written original story. He has moved the action from the British countryside to evocative Venice, changed the title (the English one is (“A Haunting in Venice”)), as well as the entire plot – and also pushes mustached Poirot into a completely different genre.
This is a gothic horror in which a group of suspicious people are trapped in a cursed haunted house on Halloween night, during a violent rainstorm in Venice, while the rational skeptic Poirot experiences supernatural phenomena and is haunted by hauntings to which he struggles to find logical answers.
Ten years have passed since the events of “Murder on the Orient Express”, the Second World War is over and Hercule Poirot is enjoying retirement in Venice. Former police inspector Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio) is hired to chase away tormentors who want the assistance of the Belgian master detective, while he devotes his time to eating high-end baked goods, expressing his OCD and tinkering with gardening. Poirot seems content to exist in self-imposed exile in his own bubble, but he is soon visited by an old friend who intends to puncture it.
Crime writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fay), a razor-sharp pickpocket who became famous for her crime novels based on the exploits of Poirot (a lightly disguised version of Agatha Christie herself, who appeared in several novels but rarely on film). She takes Poirot along to a Halloween party where the former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) has invited orphans to a spooky evening of cuddles in her dilapidated palazzo – which will then be rounded off with a spiritualist séance hosted by the clairvoyant medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeah). Ariadne needs Poirot’s help to assess whether Joyce really is possessed of paranormal abilities, and smells a new book project.
Poirot has zero patience for spiritual tricksters, and his logical instincts immediately bristle. But before the evening is over, he is pulled out of retirement and straight into another murder mystery. The case has complicated links to Rowena Drake’s late daughter Alicia, who allegedly committed suicide after being driven mad by the palace’s ghost – but according to Joyce’s spiritist prompting was actually murdered. The police are unable to arrive at the scene due to a violent rainstorm, so Poirot locks the gates and forces all the suspects to spend the night in an eerie palace apparently haunted by restless spirits. Someone also tries to drown Poirot, who struggles with his perception of reality, hears eerie children’s songs and sees a little ghost girl sneaking around the corners.
This is the prelude to a suitably cunning mystery, although very little of the story is based on Agatha Christie’s novel. So credit to screenwriter Michael Green, who has greatly improved the plot and constructed a complex intrigue worthy of Christie. It seems that Branagh learned a lot from the mistakes made with “Death on the Nile”, so this time everything outdoors is actually shot on location in Venice – while the indoor scenes take place in a lavish set constructed at the Pinewood studio. Two thumbs up for production designer John Paul Kelly!
Branagh may have been given a little too much free rein to display his sense of the theatrical and melodramatic, but it suits the story he tells well – even if this is a suitably drastic change of style. While the first two films were recorded on lavish 70mm in wide format, “Murder in Venice” is a more modest production, recorded digitally with a narrower picture frame and a slightly less prestigious cast. Branagh reunites the two main actors from his autobiographical Oscar winner “Belfast” (2021): Jamie Dornan and child actor Jude Hill, who once again play father and son. Placing a rational skeptic like Poirot in a ghost story opens up some interesting possibilities, and the script is so cunningly constructed that “Murder in Venice” manages to avoid easy solutions.
It is not difficult to reason one’s way to the killer’s identity, but the circumstances, the motive and all the pieces of the puzzle are rather difficult to put together. It also helps a lot that this is a story we haven’t seen on screen before (although the novel was used for a more faithful episode of the TV series “Poirot” in 2010). Having lost faith in Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot, it is heartening to see this film series take a new, fresh and eccentric direction. “Murder in Venice” has a distinctive character and a nerve that its predecessors lacked, so I hope Branagh gets the opportunity to make more chapters in the series. If not, he should definitely display his talents for gothic horror in a proper horror film.