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A Haunting In Venice review: The problem with Kenneth Branagh’s film is the execution

Early on, when Fey’s “authoress” Ariadne Oliver is making Branagh’s Hercule Poirot an offer he can’t resist, she tells him that the semi-retired life in Venice he is “satisfied” about leading is not what it looks like – notwithstanding all the time he gets to spend on the terrace of a house next to a canal, eating pastries boat-delivered to him twice a day.

“This looks like happiness, not satisfaction,” Oliver says. “As a writer, I know the difference.”

And, so do we. While Branagh is clearly having a lot of fun casting and directing Agatha Christie’s famed, idiosyncratic Belgian detective in his image, the end result isn’t always as satisfactory.

In this third outing as Poirot, Branagh goes for a little-known story by Christie and adapts it into a tale that is as much mystery as it is supernatural horror. It leans heavily on all the tropes that follow when there is a creaking mansion bathed in dark shadows; covered in legends of ghosts; shackled by the grief of its mistress, a renowned soprano grieving her deceased daughter; and this Halloween night, is holding a séance that brings several loves and lost loves together.

Among the odd ones out are Poirot and Oliver, who has coerced the detective to this house in the midst of a bad storm, in the hope of using his help to debunk the famous medium (played pitch perfect by Yeoh) conducting the séance.

Branagh constructs the atmosphere beautifully, as the house preys on the nerves of those caught within it, even as the séance unleashes scares that may or may not be real. Poirot, always the rationalist, finds himself on shaky ground too, trying to find answers to questions he can’t explain. One by one, two improbable killings happen, and as Poirot prepares his list of suspects, most of them make for compelling stories.

This is particularly true for the two war survivor siblings from Hungary, who are the medium’s assistants, and who are driven by the dream of somehow making it to America after watching bits of the Hollywood hit Meet Me in St Louis on a projector, their only ray of sunshine in the midst of WWII ruins.

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Reilly is impactful as the grieving, glamorous mother, and Cottin creepy as the former nun turned housekeeper, who bears the weight of her belief in angels and demons. And then there is the child, Leopold (Hill), a bit too perceptive, a tad too precocious, as charming as “chewing a tin foil”, in one character’s words.

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The problem is the execution. Having set the stage, Branagh and Michael Green, credited as writer along with Christie, seem to have run out of imagination, and taken the most convenient, obvious route to tie the loose ends together. It is not a good place for a mystery to be when its ‘the reveal’ is not even its best reveal.

There is an attempt at exposition, that ghosts are also those whom we carry within – Poirot’s time in service being a case in point. But a dead body, as “the greatest detective of all” would agree, is far more interesting than many floating ghosts.

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A Haunting in Venice movie director: Kenneth BranaghA Haunting in Venice movie cast: Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Kelly Reilly, Michelle Yeoh, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Jude HillA Haunting in Venice movie rating: 2.5 stars

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