It’s a rare thing for the third film in a franchise to be the best of the lot, but Kenneth Branagh’s reworking of one of Agatha Christie’s lesser known texts proves to be the charm. Halloween Party was published late in Christie’s career, and required quite a lot of adaptation to make it worthy of a film version. For Branagh, whose incarnation of Hercules Poirot has trodden a well-trodden sub-Ustinov path with the lavish yet workmanlike Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, it’s a welcome trip into uncharted territory, with half the budget, a less spectacular cast, less CGI trickery, unknown twists and a welcome emphasis on yer actual detective work and mystery, much as it should have been from the start of the Branagh Poirotverse.
A little more tetchy and a lot more focused, an aging Poirot finds himself in Venice at Halloween, where the masks conceal blackmail, treachery and a number of murders from the midnight hour onwards. He’s been invited by writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) to attend the séance for a dead girl, the daughter of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) who welcomes a successful medium (Michelle Yeoh) to her decaying waterfront mansion. All is not as it seems, as you’d expect; the séance ends in murder, and Poirot promptly closes the house gates and interrogates the suspects one by one until the culprit is revealed.
Aftrer some time in the doldrums, Branagh somehow reconnected with his film-making mojo with the personal story of Belfast, and carries across a few key cast members here, including Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill. A Haunting in Venice feels scaled down from the travelogue epics previously featured, with the action almost entirely focused on one single claustrophobic location. There are supernatural trappings, since most of the characters have reasons to believe in ghosts, but this Poirot is admirably clear-eyed and barely wastes a second before demonstrating his fierce antagonism to those who choose to believe in the spirit world.
Some late plot twists allow Branagh to have his cake and eat it when it comes to Poirot’s scepticism, but not before he establishes a dank, fetid atmosphere of doom and decay that recalls Don’t Look Now and the darkly ornate feel of Venice itself. But while Branagh’s Poirot feels right for the first time, his handling of the other cast members works too, with Camille Cottin and Reilly projecting the right kind of mystery, and Fey more than earning her keep as a comic sidekick with some secrets of her own; it’s fun to hear Oliver cheerfully slam Poirot’s use of complex metaphors, or address him as ‘Her-cul-es.’
Where now for Poirot? After two rather lumpy, star-packed but rather languid outings, A Haunting of Venice suggests that Branagh his finally got the super-sleuthing routine down pat; more movies, a tv show, anything could follow but for once, further adventures would be welcome. Dispensing with the franchise-friendly side of the detective, Branagh connects with the spirit of the text, brisk, witty, clever and straight to the point. Time seems to have caught up with Poirot, who seems considerably more worldly and weary that the detective who swung from railway bridges in the first film, and that grounded lack of exuberance somehow works wonders for the character. A Haunting in Venice finally brings the world of Christie to life; for Branagh, it’s a mystery finally solved at the third attempt.