This is the extent of the faint praise with which I’ll damn Kenneth Branagh’s movie, which I feel has been given a pass from many critics simply because it’s being placed in direct contrast with “Death on the Nile”; this isn’t a ridiculous romp in the same light and treats its central mystery with far more seriousness. It functions as a conventional whodunnit and never descends into pantomime, which may satisfy fans of the genre (it’s already been hailed as the best of the trilogy) but felt pretty deflating considering just how joyously bonkers the previous film was. This just feels boring placed next to it. By the halfway point, the most unexpected thing of all happened: I found myself longing for Gadot to reappear to liven things up a bit.
This isn’t to say that “A Haunting in Venice” is played straight. Instead, its over-the-top aspects are all in its overt nods to the gothic, nodding to the horror literature of the past (direct references to Poe’s work), and the horror movies of the present (Branagh has discovered jump scares, and tries to mine as many as he can from this material). We open in 1947 when Poirot has become a semi-recluse, refusing to take on any new cases, until he’s greeted by old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), an author of detective novels inspired by Poirot’s real-life cases who’s in desperate need of a hit after three consecutive flops. Considering Branagh’s box office track record of late, I’m sure this is a struggle he empathizes with.
Dragged to a Halloween party, Poirot reluctantly agrees to attend a séance, which Ariadne hopes will get his juices flowing again so she can track one of his cases first-hand. Unfortunately, what the medium (played by a game Michelle Yeoh) discovers is underwhelming, with Poirot initially sensing he’s at the center of a lazy practical joke — that is, until bodies start to pile up outside, and he hallucinates the recently departed girl they were all trying to contact. Nobody else can see this, so does it mean the house is haunted, or is it the physical manifestation of his PTSD built up over years of dealing with deadly cases? Before we know it, he proudly announces that after a few years away, “Hercule Poirot is on the case!”