Kenneth Branagh's gondola ride is anything but romantic in "A Haunting in Venice."

A Haunting in Venice is the third movie with Kenneth Branagh portraying Hercule Poirot. It seemed like the second film, Death on the Nile, had left the character at the end of a satisfying arc. Unfortunately, this new movie proves that he should have quit while he was ahead.

This film is actually not adapted from Agatha Christie’s A Haunting in Venice, but rather from a different mystery novel of hers called Hallowe’en Party, with the setting transposed to Venice for picturesque reasons. The story picks up 10 years after Death on the Nile, with the great detective retired and living a recluse’s life in La Serenissima. Pulling him out of it is Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), the world-famous murder mystery novelist who helped make Poirot’s reputation decades before. She has a sidelight debunking psychics and mediums, and she admits that Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) has her stumped. Ariadne can’t find the fraud in her claims of being able to speak with the dead, so she invites Poirot to attend Joyce’s séance at the palazzo of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), an opera star who’s desperate to contact her teenage daughter, who died in a household accident.

A grieving parent is an all too easy mark for a con artist, but the filmmakers can’t squeeze any drama from the setup. The pairing of Branagh and Fey is oil-and-water as Ariadne becomes Hercule’s unreliable assistant in the investigation. It’s not a complete loss, though, as Fey is the one actor here who remembers that this movie is supposed to be fun. The gallery of suspects includes a mentally unstable, war-traumatized doctor (Jamie Dornan), the dead girl’s boorish American fiancé (Kyle Allen), a couple of Romani siblings (Ali Khan and Emma Laird) working as Joyce’s assistants, and a devout Catholic housekeeper (Camille Cottin) who thinks Joyce is a minion of Satan. The mix of personalities fails to catch, nor does it yield the juicy star turns of the other Poirot mysteries. The one other actor who brings anything notable to the affair is Jude Hill — he played young Branagh in Belfast — as the doctor’s son.


Outright horror isn’t one of Branagh’s strengths — he danced up to the edge of it in his supernatural thriller Dead Again and even in his 1996 version of Hamlet, but his attempt to conjure it in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein failed comprehensively. Unlike Death on the Nile, this is actually filmed in the location it’s supposed to be in, but the ripples and reflections of Venice add nothing to the atmosphere. The same applies to the torrential downpour that floods the canals and prevents the police from reaching the murder scene. The frippery that made his previous Poirot films a pleasure to look at is largely gone here. He’s further handicapped by the fact that we’re dealing with Agatha Christie and not Stephen King, so we know that when Poirot sees ghosts, there’s going to be a rational explanation for it. When that explanation comes, it’s pretty clever, but it’s botched in the execution. As with the other Poirot films, the mystery lacks pace even though it takes place over a single night. The shortcomings of Branagh’s approach to Poirot have always been at odds with his movie’s compensatory pleasures, but here, the flaws have at last won out.

A Haunting in Venice
Starring Kenneth Branagh and Tina Fey. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Michael Green, based on Agatha Christie’s novel. Rated PG-13.