I love a meme that doesn’t feel like it was manufactured. There are some instances where a film or a television series that we can generously deem to be ‘viral-adjacent’ attempts to create a viral moment within the fabric of the show or film itself. Most of the time you can tell when this is happening – it feels cheap. The best kinds of memes are ones that spring up organically, that arrive when the necessarily frayed edges of what you’re watching reveal themselves in all their messy humanity. No one probably suspected that a meme could be made of Kenneth Branagh’s dire, low-effort Agatha Christie adaptation of Death on the Nile, and yet, there was Gal Gadot, stumbling her way through the line ‘enough champagne… to fill THE NILE!’ It was a perfect storm of celebrity, corniness and viral reach. Lo, a meme was born.
It is emblematic of the way in which Branagh’s Poirot films, and indeed Branagh himself, seem able to regularly reinsert themselves into the cultural conversation – enough to fuel the making of three films, with the latest A Haunting in Venice arriving in cinemas this week. The preceding films in this series, Murder on the Orient Express and Nile, are simply not very good. Leaning on flashy stunt-casting, they lack tension, danger, or authenticity. The central issue is Branagh himself – an incredibly mannered performer, he has passionately claimed the Poirot role for himself, despite not being an especially effective or interesting Poirot. As with his small role in this year’s Oppenheimer, Branagh conceals the fact that he lacks naturalism with a goofy, faux-serious accent. His most effective work as a director, and an actor, has been in films that lean into his showiness and pseudo-grandeur – his lovely debut film, an adaptation of Henry V, features Branagh in the key role. His delivery of the ‘We happy few’ monologue is one for the ages. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he was a superb as fraudulent golden boy Gilderoy Lockhart. In the first Thor film, Branagh’s Shakespearean instincts found a natural home in the gaudy-tacky galactic city of Asgard. While Agatha Christie’s stories engage in a fair amount of fanciful lily-gilding themselves, they are an altogether different beast – it takes a director of certain mettle to draw the seamy, sultry nastiness from out of the theatrical trappings of Christie’s scenarios.
That the latest in actor/director Kenneth Branagh’s series of adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot series is better than its previous instalments, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, is hardly a notable achievement. That it manages to be strong enough to justify the continuation of this series – now that’s an achievement.
Surprisingly however, with A Haunting in Venice, Branagh showcases a certain directorial flexibility that’s refreshing in its willingness to adhere to the necessities of the story. I’m hesitant to link the success of this film to Branagh’s work on Belfast, a well-meaning but hollow effort too concerned with aping the success of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma to try to evoke anything especially new or interesting. But with Belfast, Branagh also demonstrated a willingness to stretch his visual palette, however unsuccessfully. In A Haunting in Venice, Branagh tamps down on the hallmarks of earlier instalments, including Poirot’s own idiosyncrasies, instead focusing on conjuring a ghostly unease to induce genuinely effective, gothic chills. Loosely based on Christie’s less-known The Hallowe’en Party, the film transposes that novel’s English setting for Venice, continuing Branagh’s Poirot entries’ travelogue ambitions, post-Orient Express and Nile. Venice finds Poirot semi-retired and off-his-game, hounded routinely throughout postwar Europe by those seeking to utilise his unique skills to solve mysteries. When Poirot is convinced by an old associate, mystery novelist Ariadne (a likeable Tina Fey, as an Agatha Christie stand-in) to join her in attempting to debunk a psychic who can supposedly commune with the dead, Poirot finds himself drawn into yet another locked-room situation in which the bodies are beginning to pile up – and the evidence seems to suggest nefarious supernatural spirits are the culprit.
Releasing, bizarrely, over a month before Halloween, A Haunting in Venice is enjoyably spooky, while still retaining much of its air of respectability to draw in an older, more sophisticated literary crowd. The relocation to Venice is one of the film’s most ingenious creative choices. The maze-like precarity of this floating city has long been the scene of mystery, tragedy, obsession and death, emblematized by films like Don’t Look Now, The Comfort of Strangers and Death in Venice. The city’s arcane mystique is on full display in A Haunting in Venice, particularly as Poirot and his assembly of suspects become locked inside an enormous, labyrinthine mansion where the murders took place. Endearingly, Branagh has chosen to utilise this story to experiment with a host of different filmic techniques, meaning Venice is packed with canted angles, fisheye lenses and dissociative editing out the wazoo. What makes it work is that these elements are used in service of the story, to generate that pulsating dread that is so central to Venice’s ideas (as opposed to Belfast, where the director’s use of black and white and locked off camera work stifled the energy of the story). Branagh even dials back his performance as Poirot, though it is still a role better suited to another, more nuanced performer. The cast, meanwhile, has a few familiar faces, including Fey, Jamie Dornan, Kelly Reilly, and most excitingly, Michelle Yeoh as the psychic under the microscope – but it is a cast of significantly lower wattage than either Orient or Nile, the rest of the cast largely unknowns. This proves to be a real boon to Venice, with less celebrities fighting for oxygen and more chances to sink into the world’s spectral atmosphere. With A Haunting in Venice, Branagh has achieved something I didn’t think possible of this series – not only a well-made, enjoyable mystery film, but a sense that future Poirot instalments might have something new, and even exciting to offer.
A Haunting In Venice
Movie title: A Haunting in Venice (Branagh, 2023)
Movie description: That the latest in actor/director Kenneth Branagh’s series of adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot series is better than its previous instalments, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, is hardly a notable achievement. That it manages to be strong enough to justify the continuation of this series - now that’s an achievement.
Date published: September 18, 2023
Country: United Kingdom
Author: Michael Green