What genre does “A Haunting in Venice” belong to?
Twirl a mustache and join me on the case. Our first clue is that Kenneth Branagh is playing Hercule Poirot in his third adaptation of an Agatha Christie story. So, this would appear to be an open-and-shut case. Add a murder in a spooky house peopled by suspects, and you have all the hallmarks of a classic locked-room mystery. But Christie fans will quickly deduce that the screenwriter Michael Green has departed considerably from “Hallowe’en Party,” the original source material from 1969, one of her later, lesser books, adding elements that move into the realm of supernatural horror. Be on guard for misdirection.
A glum Poirot, retired from solving cases, has been invited to attend a séance where a famous opera singer, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), wants to contact her dead daughter. The medium (or fraud?) is played with brio by Michelle Yeoh, and her psychic powers present a challenge to the stony rationality of the aging detective. Unlike his relatively faithful, innocuously entertaining versions of “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile,” Branagh is pushing into ghostly new territory, leaning on scary-movie tropes such as scurrying rats, jump scares and that old standby, a face popping up in the mirror.
It’s a bit gloomy as a mystery, but perfunctory as horror. Too talky, for one thing. Branagh, who dabbled in gothic terror early in his career when he made “Frankenstein,” has more of a feel for actorly grand guignol than the pace of cinematic-scare sequences. Just when you are about to return to the whodunit, there’s an invigorating twist, spurred largely by the presence of Tina Fey, who, between this movie and her wryly satirical flourishes as an opportunistic podcaster in the series “Only Murders in the Building,” is getting awfully skilled at playing a potential killer. Fey here embodies the sharp-tongued Ariadne Oliver, a mystery author with a screwball cadence, touchy about her critical reception.
Fey introduces a comedic energy into the movie, talking out of the side of her mouth while accompanying Poirot. She adds some much-needed fizzy carbonation to the stiff drink of mystery solving. Branagh wants to tell a story of a shaken, brooding Poirot struggling with decline, but luckily, camp humor intrudes. When he aims his preposterous accent at the French actress Camille Cottin, who plays a housekeeper, it makes you think a good time was had on set.
In straddling genres, “Haunting” can get stuck in the middle. But there’s fun to be had there. What’s consistent is the elegant visuals — striking cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos — which mark this movie’s real genre as lavish old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment. Canted views of surprising corners of the house alternate with postcard-stunning shots of rainy Venetian nights. But the dominant images are close-ups of movie stars, including long, lingering glances at Branagh, whose whispery gravitas provides good, if melancholy, company and occasional wit.
In the original book, Poirot ponders the subject of beauty. He sounds skeptical and a bit insecure. “There was only one thing about his own appearance which really pleased Hercule Poirot,” Christie writes, “and that was the profusion of his mustache.”
Branagh remained entirely faithful on this trait. But he couldn’t help but add a soul patch.
A Haunting in Venice
Rated PG-13 for dangerous apple-bobbing and death by impalement. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters.
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