In 1976 a movie called “Murder by Death” debuted. Written by Neil Simon, the story revolved around a group of mystery writer’s characters being brought to a secluded mansion where they became participants in a live murder mystery. Their host, Lionel Twain, played by the perfectly cast novelist Truman Capote gathered the group in a room and lambasted their creators through them:
“You’ve tricked and fooled your readers for years. You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You’ve introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You’ve withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I’ve outsmarted you, they’ll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents.”
I’ve never been an Agatha Christie fan for the reasons expressed by Capote’s character, but I am a Kenneth Branagh fan. I thought his first foray as inspector Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express was a well done effort into the difficult arena of Poirot portrayals. Death on the Nile was annoying and flimsy and I hoped that “A Haunting in Venice” would prove a stronger entry into the Poirot legacy. Nope.
Whereas Death on the Nile was beautifully filmed featuring lush cinematography in an exotic land, “A Haunting in Venice” looks more like a film school class assignment crammed into an abandoned Victorian house.
Striving to create a foreboding and claustrophobic atmosphere by filming actors in tiny rooms and darkened doorways, Branagh rather created a nauseating cluster of scenes filmed with the largest array of wide angle and fisheye lenses one could shoehorn into a movie.
The plot of the film revolves around the suicide of a young woman living with her mother Kelly Reilly. I think.
Reilly, like Gal Gadot in the last Poirot film, is the femme du jour fresh off her Yellowstone success. Neither were particularly interesting.
Woven throughout the story is a subplot of Poirot as a world-weary man who has seen so much death that he has retreated to Venice to hide himself from its stain. Sigh.
Enter the spunky, snappy 1940’s done to death trope mystery novel writer Ariande Oliver played by the bland and unusable Tina Fey who appears out of nowhere to drag Poirot back into crime solving to restore his “purpose in life.”
Nowhere are we given any insight into this condition except for a scene of his bodyguard fending off desperate people asking for his help. I assumed he was being protective of his privacy because of his celebrity. Nope.
Honestly, by the end of the movie I saw no reason for Fey to have been in the movie.
Her contributions were mainly reaction shots when Poirot would speak to someone else. Poirot would speak and Fey would shift her eyes back and forth like one of those kitschy Japanese cat clocks. All that was missing was a pendulum tail.
Combined with her patented Saturday Night Live smirks that she did during Weekend Update stories about Sarah Palin-she gave all she had to give.
Poirot is invited to a séance on Halloween by Fey because, despite being a hard as nails (did I mention she’s spunky?) New York woman with a jaunty fedora, she’s convinced that a psychic medium played by Michelle Yeoh can explain what happened the night the young woman committed suicide.
Again, another character that was so unnecessary. Yeoh was capable and interesting but her character did nothing to further the story. Exposed early on by Poirot as a fraud, she remained in the film being looked upon by Reilly’s character as an authority to be trusted to communicate with her dead daughter. Huh?
Yeoh meanders through her role doing her best to flesh out a very thin character. Despite opportunities to scream at the camera that I would guess was just two inches away from her face, combined with wildly spinning furniture during her failed and exposed séance she just wasn’t interesting. Or needed.
Except for a brief moment, to set up what pretended to be a plot twist, when Yeoh slipped a mask and cowl over Poirot’s head from behind. This was the biggest head scratcher. Poirot is famously fastidious. There is no way that character would ever wear a mask or cowl that had been on someone else’s head and face. Yet he didn’t flinch or even question what had happened.
The scene made no sense except until the very end, when it had to, because it needed it for Poirot to explain everything. This is what brought Murder by Death to mind.
Lastly, what Branagh keeps missing with his Poirot films is…Poirot. Watch David Suchet’s Poirot episodes. He is the reason to watch the show, not the fluff around him.
Poirot is one of literature’s most famous characters because he himself has been made interesting through quirks and ticks and unflinching constancy.
Overall, if you enjoy going out and eating theatre popcorn it’s not a huge waste of time. But, if you go to be entertained and enjoy a quality production, this isn’t the one for you.
Two out of five stars.