A Haunting in Venice, the third installment of Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot film adaptations, was released last weekend. It follows world-famous detective Hercule Poirot and his mystery writer friend Ariadne Oliver to a seance where a psychic medium tells them about a supposed murder – and then, one of their party is killed.
From the film’s first shot of innocent pigeons in St. Mark's Square, brutally attacked by a seagull, it’s clear that A Haunting in Venice isn’t pitched to the traditional crowd of classic mystery and period drama. This Poirot film is styled after modern horror stories like The Haunting of Hill House, with the suggestion of spirit possession and haunted houses driving the film’s plot.
In his previous cinematic adventures, Branagh’s Poirot has tackled other major novels from the series, Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022). While both films met with moderately positive reviews, they also faced criticism for taking liberties with the original plot of the novels. With A Haunting in Venice’s unique horror style, the film is sure to ruffle feathers among those who like traditional adaptations – and perhaps prove a fun, spooky excursion leading up to Halloween.
A Haunting in Venice Is Not a Faithful Adaptation of the Novel
If you’re a stickler for book adaptations, I’ve got some bad news: A Haunting in Venice is just as different from the book as it seems in the trailer. Ostensibly the film is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party. But A Haunting in Venice doesn’t just take liberties with the novel – it murders the book’s entire plot. Character names remain the same, but entirely new personas are created for them. Joyce Reynolds is no longer the audacious, fibbing girl of 13, but now an older, mystical psychic. Olga Seminoff is no longer a missing maidservant, but instead a deeply religious housekeeper with a dark past. What is left is a story that, while compelling in its own way, bears no resemblance to its source material.
If you saw Branagh’s Death on the Nile last year, this won’t come as a surprise. Reworking the plot points of the story and reinventing the characters with new backstories or involvement in the murder case seems to be screenwriter Michael Green’s approach to adaptation, and I, for one, am not a fan. It’s as if the goal is to surprise Christie’s built-in audience of book lovers with a new ending to their favorite stories. Those looking for a faithful adaptation would be better off watching the TV episode starring David Suchet.
A Haunting in Venice draws heavily from other mysteries in crafting its new plot. Young Leopold reads a book of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, a visual reminder of the influence of stories like “The Fall of the House of Usher” on the film’s tone and design. The climax of A Haunting in Venice also draws from other Christie novels, such as The Third Girl, the previous novel in the series which deals with illicit drugs and murders for which there is no proof. A Haunting in Venice is thus a fun puzzle of literary references, more than a faithful adaptation of the book.
It’s worth noting that the changes to Hallowe’en Party may make the story more palatable to some viewers, however, since the film removes many of the novel’s most disturbing elements. The murder of multiple children, nature worship accompanied by human sacrifices – these are discarded for the more familiar tropes of haunted houses and ghost stories that may be less disturbing to some viewers.
A Haunting in Venice Shows Branagh’s Love for an Ensemble Cast
At the center of A Haunting in Venice is director Kenneth Branagh’s own performance as the famous, vain Belgian detective with the fine mustache. Branagh’s Poirot is a war-torn figure with major survivor’s guilt, whose eccentricities are driven by an undiagnosed OCD. It’s an interesting interpretation of the character and captures the more somber Poirot of the later books. Despite this, however, I can’t help but feel that Branagh’s Poirot comes less from the imagination of Agatha Christie and more from Branagh’s own musings on growing old and watching the world around you change.
What A Haunting in Venice does highlight is one of Branagh’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker: his ability to bring together a stellar ensemble cast. Featuring fine performances from a cast of stars which includes recent Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh, A Haunting in Venice uses its star-studded cast to magnificently capture its convoluted, eerie tale.
Yellowstone’s Kelly Reilly is one of the film’s standout performances, playing heartbroken mother Rowena Drake with an almost unhinged devotion, teetering between sane grief and unquestioning faith in the supernatural. Michelle Yeoh’s Joyce Reynolds may not be in the film for long, but she steals every scene she’s in. Her psychic is a believable charlatan, bringing to life the film’s ambiguity about the existence of an afterlife.
If Branagh’s Poirot fails to embody the little Belgian of Agatha Christie’s novels, Tina Fey delivers as mystery writer Ariadne Oliver. Oliver is Christie’s self-deprecating fictional version of herself and is a more madcap character in the novels than she is in the film. It’s clear that Fey is holding herself in check to match the energy of the morose Branagh. “Damn the critics on the last three [novels],” Oliver exclaims in the film, and we can almost hear Christie’s own voice regarding her own later novels. While it’s rare for Fey to play a dramatic role such as this, it’s a good look on her.
The Real Horror Is Unspoken Evil
“Is this not too scary for the children?” Poirot asks Ariadne early in the film, referencing a scary plague story told at the beginning of the Halloween party. “Scary stories make life less scary,” she responds. It’s an important moment that explains Branagh’s decision to turn the mystery novel into a horror film. This scary story, it suggests, will help us face something more scary in ourselves.
Branagh’s direction establishes a spooky sense that the truth is staring us in the face early on in the film by keeping his camera at constant sharp angles, and maintains it throughout the film. It’s as if the characters (and we with them) know that they need to adjust their perspective to see the truth. Only once Poirot has done this does the camera level out, just in time for Poirot’s final exposé of the truth.
The greatest strength of A Haunting in Venice is the film’s slow unraveling of what really haunts human beings – and it's not really talking about ghosts. There’s no great revelation of a demon spirit here, no ghost-filled wardrobe hidden away in a corner of the house. The thing that really haunts the palazzo and its visitors is unspoken, unaddressed sin. That’s the guilt that leads Leopold’s father to madness and drives the mysterious bodyguard to return to the haunted house. What really drives us mad is everything left undone and unsaid after death – and the effect that it leaves on the living.
This strange amalgam of British murder mystery and modern horror gets this one thing very right: the reason we love ghost stories in the first place. “If there is a ghost, then there is a soul. If a soul, then a god who made it, and if god, then we have everything, namely ‘order, method,’” says the doubting Poirot to the psychic medium Joyce Reynolds. Our craze for the paranormal hides our deeper desire – for everything in this life to have purpose and order and resolution, even after death.
Will A Haunting in Venice satisfy fans of slashers or traditional book adaptations? Probably not. But this spooky period drama was just scary enough to get me in the Halloween mood. Like the best Victorian ghost stories, it reminds us that the greatest evil of all is the one we hide inside ourselves.
Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s mystery novel is different from its source material, both in tone and basic story details. But while the film’s fast and loose interpretation will leave many viewers frustrated, its ghostly atmosphere will satisfy those looking for a fun fall movie night.
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