A Haunting in Venice officially derails Kenneth Branagh’s rebooted Agatha Christie films. And Branagh himself is the main culprit. The third installment of the revived Hercule Poirot series, following Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, embodies everything awry with Branagh’s quirky mustache-detective whodunits, from gaping plot holes to unconvincing performances. Unfortunately for us, the movie teases its potential several times, but nearly every time, it opts for more gimmicky tricks than suspenseful treats.
In a film reliant on (far too many) jump scares and twists, a surface-level synopsis is the best route. A Haunting in Venice opens with a retired Poirot (Branagh) living contentedly in isolation. It’s Venice in the late 1940s (though no one seems to try very hard to make us believe that). His retirement is interrupted by an old friend, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who approaches his doorman-bodyguard combo (Riccardo Scamarcio) with an apple. Vexed by a medium, played with the most conviction by Michelle Yeoh, Oliver invites Poirot to a seance at an allegedly haunted mansion where a young woman died. Not to mention, it’s Halloween night. After several deaths, the skeptical Poirot falls prey to the haunting visions. And so on.
Admittedly, A Haunting in Venice has the makings of a memorable whodunit. Agatha Christie wrote it. But, to no one’s surprise, the movie emerges discordantly. In many ways, the problem stems from its underutilized cast. The story, like any good whodunit, introduces a dynamic ensemble—a doctor, an Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed child, a conflicted nun, a money-grubbing ex-fiancee, a tricky medium and her assistants, a mourning mother, and an ex-policeman—played by several star-power players. Still, the film resembles a high school production, where more legwork to expound these characters is in the dialogue than the performances. But strangely enough, the same can’t be said about Branagh’s Poirot, the only character given a significant morsel of attention. Now, there’s a mystery for us. PG-13, 103 min.