Don’t let the goofy mustache or the funny accent fool you: Kenneth Branagh has gotten really good at adapting Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories. While Murder on the Orient Express was a fine enough thriller and a serviceable update of a whodunit classic, A Haunting in Venice, now on Hulu just in time for Halloween, is his best mystery yet (and let’s just agree not to talk about Death on the Nile).
A Haunting in Venice is adapted from Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party, but changes quite a bit of the story. Here, Poirot is pulled out of retirement at the behest of a mystery-writer friend in order to investigate the dubious supernatural claims of a medium. Of course, things don’t go as planned and a murder occurs, giving our heroic mustachioed Belgian detective no choice but to investigate.
Three Poirot movies in, Branagh is clearly gaining more confidence as a director in the murder mystery genre. Haunting is full of stylish visual flourishes and nods to some of the greatest directors of the era the movie is set in, from Fritz Lang to Orson Welles. The Venetian villa where most of the movie’s action takes place is shot like a Gothic castle, with massive, looming shadows that stretch all the way across the frame and swallow all the light in the room. Suits of armor lurk menacingly behind characters and at the edges of the frame, as if threatening to come to life. The whole movie is tremendously moody, filled with creeping dread and mystery, but never loses its momentum or sense of fun. Branagh can’t quite match the true masters in their originality of vision, but he’s becoming as adept at adapting and repurposing directing styles and camera movements as he’s always been at adapting stories.
The movie is far and away the scariest of Branagh’s detective movies, so it’s a great fit for a Halloween watch, but it doesn’t quite reach full horror-movie levels of terror. Compelling evidence of specters and dead things walking appears frequently, claims of a haunted orphanage are thrown around, and death generally lurks around every corner, all without ever getting too spooky for most viewers to handle.
The one real mark against the movie is that not all of its actors are up to the task of matching the script and directing. Branagh is better than he’s ever been as Poirot: arch, knowing, and just the right amount of silly, but with the pain and sorrow of someone who has encountered a tremendous amount of death. Camille Cottin is similarly good as a suspicious housekeeper, and Michelle Yeoh is excellent in her very brief appearance as the medium Poirot is sent to investigate. Unfortunately, none of this can be said for Tina Fey. As Poirot’s author friend, she doesn’t have the charisma to match the rest of the cast, and overplays her intrigue enough to give more of the movie away than she should. But that’s ultimately a pretty minor quibble with an otherwise very fun movie.
The more time Branagh spends on his Poirot movies, the more it becomes clear just how much he loves making them. And that’s great, because they’re Branagh at his most fun, both as an actor and a filmmaker. He gets to do an accent and put on all the silly mannerisms one performance can possibly handle. But Branagh is also at his best as a filmmaker when he has clear references to pull from, whether it’s novels or entire eras of filmmaking, and this series gives him both. And it’s a good thing he enjoys these, because they’re starting to get really good. Here’s to as many more as he wants to make.
A Haunting in Venice is now streaming on Hulu.