Hercule Poirot has an almost supernatural knack for solving murders.
That makes “A Haunting in Venice” a natural extension of the character’s old-school universe.
“Venice,” adapted from Agatha Christie’s “Hallowe’en Party,” offers a horrific twist on the genre, and it’s more than an agreeable fit. Murders abound, as do things that go bump in the night. It’s all orchestrated with aplomb by star/director Kenneth Branagh.
Poirot’s gargantuan mustache has been downgraded, but there’s nothing small about the pleasures in Branagh’s third outing as the celebrated sleuth.
Our mustachioed hero has settled into a cozy, if lonely, retirement in Italy as the story opens. No more murder mysteries for him. It’s about leisure, first and foremost.
His tranquility gets a nudge from an old friend.
Ariadne, a mystery author played by Tina Fey, wants her old pal to debunk a local mystic who holds phony seances to trick the locals.
Or so she assumes.
Could this mystic, played with a detached air by Michelle Yeoh, actually hold the key to the afterlife? Will Hercule find himself drawn back to his particular set of skills? And what happens when a dead body inevitably appears?
Hercule’s arrival means someone won’t live to see the final credits.
We’ll share no more but know that Branagh’s Hercule remains a deliciously droll figure unlike any on screens today. He’s smart but self-aware, a touch arrogant but with a nagging sense for the common man.
Ariadne has his number, and their banter may be the film’s sublime selling point. Michael Green’s screenplay isn’t brilliant, but it’s wise and clever when the scenes demand it. That could be with the Hercule-Ariadne playful bickering or the sense that this particular mystery will test even Hercule’s considerable talents.
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“Venice” could use some more star power. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by “Death on the Nile” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” but another larger-than-life player could have spiked the cinematic punch.
Jamie Dornan plays a widower trying to care for his precocious son, but his morose presence weighs down some of the fun. Dornan’s character suffers from PTSD, as does Hercule, a subplot that does add gravitas to a nimble mystery.
You won’t solve the puzzle in play, and when Hercule starts putting the pieces together you’ll marvel at the script’s ingenuity.
What sets “Venice” apart is the production design and cinematography. Branagh’s vision is so knowing, so keenly aware of the genres he’s combining that even the quietest scenes hum with vitality.
This film is gorgeous to behold, like a haunted house where no expense is spared to leave visitors unmoored.
The new Hercule Poirot films are a minor miracle in today’s Hollywood. They’re neither splashy nor rushed, and they take great care to tell old-fashioned stories the old-fashioned way.
Long may Branagh’s Hercule reign.
HiT or Miss: “A Haunting in Venice” lacks the star power of previous Kenneth Branagh mysteries, but it’s still a jolly good time.