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Review: "A Haunting in Venice" finds Kenneth Branagh revitalized
After a long time in the studio system wilderness, this is his best film in ages
Kenneth Branagh had a weird 2010s. After bringing a comic-book character long thought unadaptable to life with 2011’s Thor, he mostly got swallowed up by the Hollywood studio system, bouncing between franchise reboots like 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Disney remakes like 2015’s Cinderella, and a doomed long-past-its-expiration-date adaptation with 2020’s Artemis Fowl. He really went through the corporate wringer, in a way most directors in a similar position never recover from (interest in the potential revival of Tim Burton as a real artist was extinguished with that director’s own Disney remake, 2019’s Dumbo). But Branagh has been trying to get back to expressing his own voice these last few years, with politely-if-not-rapturously received passion projects like All is True and Belfast, and attempts to bend the studio system closer to his own will with big-budget adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. I wasn’t crazy about either of his first two Hercule Poirot films, but I admired the old-school dedication to delivering handsome, measured entertainment for adults in a time when studios generally aren’t cutting checks to make these kinds of films happen, especially on the big screen.
Color me pleasantly surprised, then, that with his third at-bat donning Poirot’s mustache, Branagh connects for something resembling a home run, proving it is indeed possible to come out of the Hollywood meatgrinder with one’s sensibilities and creativity fully intact. A Haunting in Venice is the best film Branagh has directed since the 1990s, a whodunnit dripping with atmosphere, loaded with great performances, and shot through with both a poignant sense of sadness and a pervasive zeal for cinematic creation. It isn’t a revolutionary breakthrough, but then, Branagh was never that kind of director; what it offers is smart, soulful, and patient entertainment for those who go to the movies wanting to see the big-screen canvas used to envelop them in a story that couldn’t be told any other way. By that standard, Branagh succeeds admirably.
Indeed, A Haunting in the Venice is the first of his Poirot films to fully embrace a cinematic language; that it goes further afield from Christie’s source text than either of the last two adaptations is no coincidence. Screenwriter Michael Green – who also helped pen James Mangold’s Logan, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, and Ridley Scott’s Alien Covenant, three of the best franchise films of the decade – definitely seemed overqualified for Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, both relatively straightforward adaptations of novels that do not lack for cinematic stagings. A Haunting in Venice is instead inspired by one of Christie’s lesser-known Poirot stories, 1969’s Hallowe’en Party, and to my understanding plays with the novel’s structure and narrative much more actively than Branagh and Green have before. The result is a story that feels more surprising, more personal, and more of-the-moment, and that gets to play with the tools of cinema much more fulsomely.
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The film is strikingly and beautifully made, and it wears its influences on its sleeve; the film is particularly indebted to Carol Reed’s The Third Man, set in an off-kilter, paranoid version of postwar Europe, but also takes plentiful inspiration from that movie’s co-star, Orson Welles, with whom Branagh has always shared a certain affinity as a fellow Shakespearean multi-hyphenate actor/director. The film is awash in canted angles, faces and spaces exaggerated by wide-angle lenses, and startling jump cuts that sometimes double as graphic matches (in a nod to Welles, Branagh even takes the iconic cockatoo ‘jump scare’ from Citizen Kane and repurposes it as an ongoing motif here). Framed at the taller 1.85:1 aspect ratio and shot with IMAX-rated digital cameras, the picture is both exceptionally clear and perpetually out-of-balance, characters dwarfed by spaces and isolated on extreme ends of the frame.
Some of these techniques (the dutch angles especially) are ones Branagh has always leaned on, but the visual language he develops here is remarkably coherent, working not just to create a pervasively unsettling atmosphere – this is as much a haunted house movie as it is a whodunnit – but also an emotionally resonant one. And this is where A Haunting in Venice really feels like a massive step-up from Branagh’s last two Poirot films, which are sturdy but forgettable; they feel a bit lost in time, part of the recent resurgence of the whodunnit on film and television, but without the political bit or timeliness of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and Poker Face. Branagh’s latest doesn’t suddenly become a finger-on-the-pulse polemic like Glass Onion, but in its careful development of atmosphere and emotion, it does quietly feel like a reflection of the times we live in. Branagh’s Poirot has always been a particularly sad, haunted version of the character, a Sisyphean figure driven to solve crimes even though the answers always make him feel miserable. Branagh the director really cues in on that dynamic here, telling a story where that sadness becomes pervasive, with the detective and the world around him are exhausted and hopeless after two great wars and far too much death and destruction; the world feels contingent, nothing quite seems fully real, and there is precious little to hope in or for, with suspicions running in all directions. In short, it feels like an honest reflection of what the world feels like right now, and the mystery itself is a lot less important than this specific atmosphere, concentrated and explored through the space of the haunted Venetian palazzo. Once all the secrets have been revealed, Branagh nails the thematic landing, wherein getting the answers doesn’t suddenly fix the world or make it feel any less broken. It just inspires Poirot and those around him to rededicate themselves to being proactively a part of it. I like that message, and I like that small, quiet, but meaningful sense of hope that comes across as the credits roll. There is no specific, glaring allegory to today going on here, but through the atmosphere Branagh conjures and the way his characters move through this world, A Haunting in Venice comes to feel like a movie of the moment, its emotional tenor resonant for our time.
The film was shot by Branagh’s longtime collaborator Haris Zambarloukos, and this is easily the best work they’ve ever done together. It’s also a significant evolution, because for all the techniques familiar to Branagh’s past work, this is the first time he’s fully embraced digital photography. There is no effort to recreate the texture of celluloid here, the film instead reveling in the IMAX framing and hyper-clarity of the digital imaging. That, combined with a rededication to real location shooting and detailed physical sets after the sheer tonnage of CGI employed in Death on the Nile, makes this film such an immense tactile pleasure. It is a movie full of big, perspective-encompassing images, each of them a little (or a lot) off-kilter, always inviting you to lean in and look closely, to see the world from a different angle while also feeling like you could reach out and touch everything you see. I am in love with the look of it – Branagh hasn’t been drunk on his own mise-en-scene, or used his camera to so thoroughly and creatively explore the space, since his 1996 adaptation of Hamlet.
As an actor, Branagh is at his best here, and while you in no way need to have seen Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile to understand and enjoy A Haunting in Venice, the one piece of ‘continuity’ I do enjoy following here is seeing how his performance as Poirot has deepened and evolved. He gets better every time out, and he taps further and further into this lived-in sense of sadness and alienation, of someone weighed down by having his worst suspicions about humanity confirmed time and time again. Branagh’s Poirot is tonally the polar opposite of Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, far from the detective reveling in the unveiling of secrets and vanity. I love that we have both of these performances representing multiple sides of the contemporary whodunnit, though – they complement each other well, and of course, Branagh’s Poirot is not bereft of his own sly sense of humor here and there; he does, after all, have a mustache so large and outrageous that it has its own second mustache on top. Branagh’s ability to play the character straight and invest in some real, weighty emotions does not detract from his enthusiasm for the more ridiculous aspects of a character this larger-than-life.
The cast around Branagh is as great as ever; I assume he is a pleasurable director to work with, since he has never wanted for a wide array of great talent even in his worst films. I was particularly happy to see Kelly Reilly here, who always deserves to be on screen more, and Michelle Yeoh makes a real three-course-meal out of her handful of scenes. Tina Fey is the out-of-left-field casting standout, though, as Poirot’s novelist friend Ariadne Oliver; I would not have thought of her for a part like this, which is witty but not comical, but she’s fantastic here, and the sense that she seems a touch too ‘modern’ for this setting actually works in the character’s favor, as one gets the sense of a person frustrated to be stuck in the time they’re living in.
A Haunting in Venice is a treat. I do not want to oversell it, but at the same time I want to express what a pleasure it is to see Branagh’s passion for the material and oft-suppressed (or mis-used) filmmaking talents dovetail so neatly here. It would greatly behoove Hollywood to make more films like this, mid-budget adult entertainment claiming a robust sense of competence, and it would be nice to see Branagh continue working in this kind of space. I didn’t leave either of his first two Poirot films wanting or needing more, but after this one, I would be disappointed if Branagh doesn’t get to further explore this little corner he’s carved out for himself. If he can make it out of the studio grind with his fastball intact, maybe there’s hope for other directors who have been chewed up by 21st-century Hollywood after all.
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