A Haunting in Venice review: Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot at Halloween fails to haunt

 (20th Century Studios)
(20th Century Studios)

To say this is Kenneth Branagh’s “best Hercule Poirot movie yet” is undoubtedly true, but means sod all. Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile were ridiculous. The new venture is consistently gorgeous to look at, toys in a smart way with our desire for rational explanations and allows Tina Fey to strut her stuff (which is significant because the SNL genius behind Mean Girls and 30 Rock has often floundered on the big screen). Just don’t compare it to 70s chillers like Don’t Look Now or Death in Venice, because it’s not remotely haunting.

Branagh and his long-time collaborator, Michael Green, seem emboldened by the fact that the source material (Agatha Christie’s savage, shocking 1969 novel, Hallowe’en Party) is relatively obscure and non-beloved. The pair have jettisoned the time frame and most of the plot.

There’s a recognisable Hercule Poirot (the moustache is back, more resplendant than ever), working alongside Adriadne Oliver (Fey), a character widely viewed as Christie’s fictional alter ego. And many of the book’s themes and motifs remain (kids betrayed by adults; a prized garden; an apple bobbing session from hell). But we’re not in Woodleigh Common anymore and – spoiler alert! – much bitchy fun is had at Christie’s expense.

Venice, 1946. Oliver drags a retired Hercule to a “cursed” palazzo, where opera singer, Rowena (Kelly Reilly) is holding a Halloween party for orphans, followed by a séance with medium, Mrs Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). Rowena is desperate to connect with her teenage daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who died a year ago in mysterious circumstances.

Also at the séance are Alicia’s ex-fiancé Maxime (Kyle Allen), the family doctor Leslie Ferrier and his son, Leopold (Belfast co-stars Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill), the housekeeper, Olga (Camille Cottin), and Reynolds’ Romany assistant, Desdemona (Emma Laird). Soon there’s blood on the object d’art and Poirot’s behaving like a loon.

Let’s acknowlege the movie’s problems. Oscar-winner Yeoh’s slumming it, Dornan doesn’t have the gravitas for a speech that touches on the horrors of Belsen and issue must be taken with Reilly’s appearance. The actress has a distractingly modern face (if only Branagh had cast Cate Blanchett or Carey Mulligan) and things are only made worse by the make-up team. Even at her most distraught, Rowena looks ready to give a YouTube tutorial on how to do a smokey eye.

The screenplay, too, isn’t nearly as hilarious or twisted as Christie’s prose. Christie’s young characters are unreliable, icy-hearted, knowing and often profoundly dumb. By contrast, Hill’s precocious Leopold is altogether too sweet, while Robinson’s on-the-verge-of-womanhood Alicia (whose comely portrait hangs on the wall and whose photogenic corpse we repeatedly see in flashbacks), is as bland as a blank envelope.

But it’s hard to complain when so much of the dialogue is sharp (there’s a nice line about what it means to be “the hired help”, while a reference to Meet Me in St. Louis’s happy ending is both arch and unexpectedly touching).

Fey’s Oliver quips that talking to Desdemona has “all the charm of chewing tinfoil.” Haha! Watching A Haunting in Venice is more like chewing on expensive chocolates. An indulgent if disposable treat, it’s just right for Halloween.

107mins, cert 12A

In cinemas