Done well, there can be nothing more enjoyable than a big, fake moustache and an overblown accent. Kenneth Branagh obviously agrees. Why else would he have spent the better part of six years playing the carefully coiffed Belgian detective Moohz-ure Poirot? Unfortunately, the two films he directed and starred in so far – Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile – weren’t done well. And in latest entry A Haunting In Venice, no one’s enjoying themselves either.
Departing from the classic caper vibes of Orient and Nile, Venice is a psychological ghost story filled with sudden jump scares and people having nervous breakdowns. It begins with Poirot enjoying his retirement on The Floating City. He has artisanal bread delivered by boat each morning for breakfast and takes great pleasure in ignoring the long queue of prospective employers snaking around his apartment block. That wouldn’t make for a very exciting film though. So when his old pal, bestselling crime novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), turns up and insists he accompany her to a seance that night, he agrees. The obsessively logical Poirot doesn’t believe in ghosts, but there’s definitely something creepy going on at the storm-battered palazzo they gather in. Is famous psychic Mrs Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) yanking his cane – or will our expertly groomed gumshoe be forced to admit that not even he can collar a supernatural killer?
As ever, Branagh is joined by a star-stuffed cast of potential suspects. Alongside Fey and Yeoh are Jamie Dornan, who plays a neurotic doctor recently returned from war; Yellowstone‘s Kelly Reilly as a delicate opera diva; and French actress Camille Cottin in the downtrodden housekeeper role. None are allowed to cut loose by an unflashy script, and the spooky happenings mean everyone’s too frightened to crack a joke either. Horror fans hoping for an early Halloween treat will also be disappointed though. Terrifying trailers and unsettling social media spots may have bigged up the film’s more macabre moments, but Branagh’s haunted house whodunnit is still only rated 12A (an annoying trend that comes out of studios not wanting to exclude fear-phobic audiences). A Nightmare On Venice Lido this is not.
Saving the day this time isn’t Poirot, but the city itself which Branagh captures in all its decadently crumbling glory. Crane shots sweep over grand Renaissance buildings and dive back down again under tiny stone bridges. Poirot often takes his meetings at the top of a tall tower, providing breathtaking views of the Venice skyline. Occasionally, he’s presented in an almost Wes Anderson-ish fashion, splitting the shot symmetrically and against pastel-coloured backdrops. Add to that some atmospheric, lamp-lit gondola rides through a foggy canal system and the film’s simple beauty just about compensates for its dull plot.
It’s a mixed bag, then. There’s plenty for the ITV3 Agatha Christie crowd to sink their dentures into, but not the shocking rebirth others had hoped for. A fourth adventure is as yet unannounced, though producer James Pritchard has said he hopes Branagh will return. Can he resist sticking on the tash one more time?
- Director: Kenneth Branagh
- Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Kelly Reilly
- Release date: September 15 (in cinemas)