Kenneth Branagh’s trilogy of films based on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries has been a rather mixed bag.
Although their lack of superheroes and world-ending threats made for refreshing viewing at the multiplex, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile struggled to justify their existence amongst a bevy of already successful Christie adaptations.
Boasting all-star casts and lavish special effects, they were nevertheless forgettable fare and even committed the unforgivable crime of making the world’s best murder mysteries feel just a little bit silly.
For A Haunting in Venice, Branagh’s third investigation as the iconic Belgian sleuth, the director and star makes the wise decision to adapt one of Christie’s lesser-known novels, Hallowe’en Party.
Not only are the twists and turns far less familiar to even the most avid fans of the crime drama but the action is transposed to the Italian capital with plenty of narrative tweaks along the way.
Whodunnit purists might take offense at the brazen artistic license on display, but this brand-new story makes for edge-of-your-seat viewing.
Along for the ride is crime author Ariadne Oliver (played by Tina Fey), spiritual medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) and troubled doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan).
Yellowstone’s Kelly Reilly also takes a break from cowboy antics as Rowena Drake, who instigates the mystery by organizing a séance in her supposedly haunted palazzo.
Plus, young star Jude Hill, who shone in Branagh’s previous directorial effort Belfast, is another standout here as Leslie’s Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed son, channeling The Omen’s demonic child Damien with a spoonful of empathy.
Horror comparisons are apt for Haunting in Venice, as Branagh goes unashamedly Scooby Doo for his Poirot’s first foray into the supernatural.
Featuring the ‘ghosts’ of orphaned children, secret passages and shadow puppets, Rowena’s crumbling abode creaks against the banks of the Venice canals and immediately finds a place in the haunted house Hall of Fame.
It’s also pretty much the only location in the entire film, as Poirot and the guests are forced to endure a night amongst the spirits until the mystery is resolved.
A single, claustrophobic setting thankfully means this latest entry lacks the green-screened vistas and pointless narrative detours of the previous films.
Unlike the Orient Express or the Nile’s cruise ship, real history is felt around every shadowy corner and peeling wall of Rowena’s crooked home, while chilling flashbacks are instrumental to the unfolding enigma.
This stripped-back approach is Haunting…’s real strength, as the movie never strays too far from what Christie fans have come to expect from the acclaimed TV specials starring David Suchet.
A tight mystery, plenty of twists and a cast having the time of their lives is all Poirot needs to deliver top-drawer thrills – it’s just a shame Branagh didn’t figure this out earlier.
A Haunting in Venice is in theaters from Friday, September 15.
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