Kenneth Branagh continues his Agatha Christie preoccupation with A Haunting in Venice, his third in a series of films based on Christie novels. As is the case with much of Christie's work, Haunting delays its big revelation until the end, allowing ace detective Hercule Poirot finally to disclose whodunit.
I won't do that with this review. Here's my take: Haunting is an adequate -- though hardly exhilarating -- thriller seasoned by supernatural suggestion that goes against the ultra-rational Poitrot grain.
As a director, Branagh, who also plays Poirot, takes advantage of otherworldly possibilities, trying for a few jolts and a large helping of eeriness. But the film doesn't register as a superior slice of horror, if that's what Branagh had in mind.
Christie purists will note that Branagh has based his film on the author's novel, Hallowe'en Party, and shifted its location from England to Italy. By confining most of the tale to the creepy confines of an old palazzo, Branagh misses an opportunity. The labyrinthian alleys and byways of Venice could have augmented the movie's mystery and terror.
The story begins in 1947 when Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer played by Tina Fey, invites Poirot to a Halloween party. She wants the great sleuth to expose a psychic (Michelle Yeoh) who claims to communicate with the dead, one of whom happened to be the daughter of the palazzo's owner (Kelly Reilly). The girl, we learn, entered the realm of the departed after committing suicide.
Not surprisingly, the mystery doesn't end when Poirot discover that the psychic is a fraud. The plot contrives to allow Poirot to do what he always does: hunt a killer.
The visual atmosphere ranges from dim to dark and Branagh also employs a charged angle about the palazzo's past. At one time, the place housed orphans who were abandoned to die. Their ghosts are said to have haunted the place ever since.
The supporting cast of characters -- or more precisely suspects -- includes a visiting American (Kyle Allen), a psychologically damaged physician (Jamie Dornan), his precocious son (Jude Hill) and others who expand the list of red herrings.
We're meant to wonder whether a stream of mysterious occurrences will shatter Poirot's commitment to reason, causing him to rethink his rejection of otherworldly claims. Let's just say that Poirot's skepticism, forged by many murder investigations, has deep roots.
Earlier in this review, I called Haunting adequate, hardly a ringing endorsement for a whodunit that generates too little concern about who committed the dastardly deed.
It's not so much that we figure things out early on; it's that we're not given enough reason to immerse in the gloomy game Poirot must play.