For Kenneth Branagh's third adaptation of a Hercule Poirot mystery, he changes up the style, mixing in an old-fashioned ghost story into the standard whodunnit. It works well, making A Haunting in Venice the most enjoyable of this series so far. Sure, this is still pretty mid-level filmmaking but the cast, set design, and script all combine into a frothy, fun time that pulls from Branagh's previous successful ghost story, Dead Again.
Each performance Branagh gives of Poirot becomes less and less hammy and more and more believable. This is the best version of his acclaimed detective so far. This is largely thanks to Branagh finally understanding that Poirot is secondary to the mystery at hand. The whodunnit is the star, not him and the A Haunting in Venice is more focused on the mystery than 2017's Murder on the Orient Express or 2022's Death on the Nile were.
The film is set on Hallow's Eve sometime after Death On the Nile. Poirot is residing in Venice and living out his quiet retirement when things get interrupted by the arrival of his mystery writer friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey). She invites him to a seance, enlisting his help to debunk medium Joyce (Michelle Yeoh). Poirot is intrigued enough to join and soon learns that there was a mysterious murder in the palazzo where a young woman named Alicia died. Poirot is quick to expose the medium but there are a few elements to her claimed abilities he can't explain. Then one of the guests dies and Poirot is out of retirement and on the case.
In each Christie adaptation Branagh directs moves farther away from the fussiness and mannered nature of Murder on the Orient Express into something more restrained and interesting. A Haunting in Venice is the best one so far with its darker tone and more subtle performances.
Haris Zambarloukos's cinematography is the only place things are a little dialed up. Dutch angles and super-wide lense abound to give the film a disorienting look. The lighting is fantastic as are some of the camera movements but the excessive use of distorting lenses may be off-putting to some. Lucy Donaldson's editing gives the film an anxious pacing that suits the story well. The film is under two hours and moves quickly.
Venice is a great location for a spooky mystery and the cast all seem to be loving their time there. Fey is fine if a bit over-the-top as Oliver. Yeoh is a standout as Joyce, committing fully to a spectral quality. Jude Hill is a standout as the young Leopold, a precocious child whose intelligence almost undoes Poirot. The rest of the cast do a good job as well making the film have an ensemble feel rather than just a parade of stars.
Branagh is clearly enjoying this series of films and he keeps getting better at making them. As he tones down his performance as Poirot, he also tones down the filmmaking. He is trusting the material more and recognizing that why we return to Christie's stories is that we want a good mystery, we want to try to figure it all out before Poirot.