(L-R): Riccardo Scamarcio as Vitale Portfoglio and Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in 20th Century Studios' A HAUNTING IN VENICE. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2023 20th Century Studios.

A Haunting in Venice | ★★★★ | Now in theaters

A Haunting in Venice, the latest in director Kenneth Branagh’s series of Agatha Christie adaptations, is not your typical Halloween horror film. 

Set in postwar Europe, the film has no gore, no demons, no bloodied teenagers. Instead, we get crumbling Italian palazzos, fleeting apparitions, and some surprisingly sophisticated themes. It’s a Halloween movie for grownups.

The third and best installment in the series so far, the new film follows 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and last year’s Death on the Nile. Once again, Branagh directs and stars as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

But A Haunting in Venice brings us a different Poirot than we’ve seen before. World War II has devastated Europe. Our hero, disgusted with human folly, has retired from the sleuthing game and retreated to the calm waters of Venice. There’s a weariness about Mssr. Poirot. He’s seen the soul of humankind, and he’s in despair.

Alas, Poirot is cajoled into One Last Mystery by his old friend, the famous crime novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey). A phony spiritualist (Michelle Yeoh) is exploiting those in grief by staging séances that seem to be real. “I’m the smartest person I’ve ever met, and I can’t figure it out, so I came to the second,” Ariadne tells Poirot.

The séance is held at the decaying palazzo of opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), desperate to contact her teenage daughter who died by suicide a year earlier, on All Hallows Eve. Or: Did she? The twists start right about here, so we’ll leave off with the details except to note that at least one additional death takes place at the séance. True to his technique—order and method!—Poirot cordons off the crime scene and forces everyone to spend the night in the derelict mansion.  

All the familiar beats lock into groove. Poirot isolates each of his suspects and grills them about the crime. With each interrogation we get another puzzle piece. This is the same essential game that Christie plays in her novels. By paying close attention to the disciplined disclosure of information, we are invited to solve the crime along with—or maybe even before—the great detective.

It’s impossible, of course, but it’s fun. And it’s all about the characters. Along with the psychic, the novelist, and the opera singer, we meet a twitchy doctor with PTSD; a spooky Slavic housekeeper with old-world superstitions; a pair of anxious Romani war orphans; and a preternaturally calm little boy.

Eventually we meet the ghost in question, kind of, which presents Poirot with an existential dilemma. As played by Branagh, Poirot is an atheist, a man of science; the ultimate rationalist. When he starts seeing ghosts, it doesn’t just rattle his nerves, it upends his entire philosophy. This is the most interesting part of the whole film, and I like that Branagh trusts his audience enough to include deeper themes of belief versus reason.

I like it even better that screenwriter Micheal Green finds a way to resolve that tension while still providing an ending that plays fair by the rules of the classic whodunit. As one character notes: “We must make peace with our ghosts, whether real or not.”

A Haunting in Venice is professional-grade moviemaking, with top-shelf actors, artful design, and some gorgeous locations in Venice. It’s got a few good chills, but the really spooky stuff is buried just beneath the genre surface. Poirot’s dark night of the soul takes place in postwar Europe, but it speaks to a similar contemporary despair, too. If you see the movie, which I recommend, watch how the story ends. It’s a neat trick and a little ray of hope.

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