By Eleanor Ringel Cater
My guess is that Kenneth Branagh had a lot more fun making “A Haunting in Venice” than we have watching it.
The picture is based on the 1969 Agatha Christie mystery, “Hallowe’en Party,” which, according to those who know, doesn’t take place in Venice. But what-the-heck.
Branagh’s movie craftily uses the rain-drenched ancient city to give us the shivers. But while half-glimpsed shadows and the eerie echo of unseen children’s laughter are undeniably atmospheric, the mystery itself is woefully undercooked.
The year is 1947. Christie’s wonderfully eccentric detective, Hercule Poirot (Branagh, his third time in the role), has retreated to Venice, now haunted by the horrors of World War II. He quietly tends his rooftop garden and has hired a bodyguard to keep away the lines of people who still petition him for help.
However, the particularly determined Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a world-famous mystery writer (read, Christie stand-in), manages to get through. She has a proposition: accompany her on All Hallow’s Eve to a supposedly cursed palazzo for a late-night séance.
Poirot, who likes mystics about as much as Harry Houdini did (i.e., not at ALL), accepts, and they end up sitting around a table with a medium named Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). The evening’s hostess (Kelly Reilly) wants to find out what happened to her beloved daughter, who drowned in a canal. Did she commit suicide or…
Among the suspects (or future murder victims) are the young woman’s former fiancée (Kyle Allen), a war-shattered doctor (Jamie Dornan), his precocious young son (Jude Hill in Ralphie, i.e., “A Christmas Story,” glasses), and a good-hearted au pair (Camille Cottin).
Branagh’s love of jump cuts and Old Hollywood glamor serve him well here. The movie has a certain unearned lavishness; it’s insistently watchable, especially when Branagh’s camera is prowling the palazzo, dripping with menace and bad weather.
But the picture has no build, no real sense of uh-oh or omigod. Branagh imbues Poirot with his considerable charm, but it’s all surface. Fey has considerable charm as well, and she’s so likable one could almost see her launched in her own movie-mystery series (directed, of course, by Branagh).
But much like her cultural predecessor, Mary Tyler Moore, there’ still something video-sized about her. In the current streaming era, that may not matter. Still, there’s the nagging sense that she can’t fill the frame as she should.
The one who does fill the frame, who can’t even glance sideways without commanding our full attention, is recent Oscar-winner Yeoh. You find yourself wishing she were the film’s center instead of Branagh or even Fey.
But that’s another story and probably not one written by Agatha Christie.