‘A Haunting in Venice’: Ghostly sights stump Poirot (briefly) in instantly involving murder mystery

Kenneth Branagh is joined by wonderful international cast including Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Dornan.

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At the behest of a friend (Tina Fey, left), Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) attends a séance led by a medium (Michelle Yeoh) in “A Haunting in Venice.”

At the behest of a friend (Tina Fey, left), Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) attends a séance led by a medium (Michelle Yeoh) in “A Haunting in Venice.”

20th Century Studios

On first blush, Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot and Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall couldn’t be more different, but on some level they’re brothers from another genre.

  • The 68-year-old Washington is currently on big screens with “Equalizer 3,” following the original in 2014 and the sequel in 2018, while the 62-year-old Branagh joins Washington in the multiplex with his third Poirot movie, following “Murder on the Orient Express” in 2017 and last year’s “Death on the Nile.”
  • Branagh’s Poirot is a war veteran with OCD tendencies who long ago lost the love of his life. Washington’s McCall is a war veteran with OCD tendencies who long ago lost the love of his life. And while Poirot and McCall have very different ways of exacting justice, both are legends in their profession who have a unique ability to enter a room filled with suspicious characters and mete out justice to the guilty before it’s all over. They’re brilliant!
‘A Haunting in Venice’

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20th Century Studios presents a film directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Michael Green, based on the novel “Hallowe’en Party” by Agatha Christie. Running time: 107 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements). Opens Thursday in local theaters.

Just as McCall had relocated to Italy in “The Equalizer 3” and was hoping to enjoy a peaceful retirement before he was pulled back into the game, Poirot has relocated to Italy in “A Haunting in Venice” and is hoping to enjoy a peaceful retirement before he’s pulled back into the game — this time with a supernatural twist.

With Branagh also providing stylish direction (he’s also not above indulging in jump-scares), screenwriter Michael Green fleshing out and making some major changes to a relatively lesser work by Agatha Christie (titled “Hallowe’en Party”) and a terrific international cast who embrace the inspired, over-the-top lunacy of the story, this is an instantly involving murder mystery with a semi-crazy ending that really works — if we don’t think too hard about it. After all, this is a whodunit wrapped inside a ghost story. Not that the meticulous and logical Hercule Poirot could ever believe in ghosts, right? Right?

With an appropriately eerie and haunting score by the greatly talented Emmy- and Academy Award-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (“Chernobyl,” “Joker”) and skewed-angle visuals from cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, “A Haunting in Venice” is set in 1947, with Poirot enjoying a leisurely life as he spends much of his time with his rooftop garden, while his bodyguard, the former Italian poliziotto Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio), keeps at bay the scores of locals and weary travelers who have come to plead with Poirot to take their case, whatever that case may be. Their pleas fall on deaf ears — but Poirot is practically dragged back into the game when he receives a visit from the closest thing to a friend he has: one Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who has made a living writing detective novels inspired by Poirot’s cases but is in a slump and in desperate need of a hit.

Ariadne talks Poirot into accompanying her to a Halloween night séance at the enormous and foreboding and supposedly haunted palazzo of the famed former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who hopes to make contact with her daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who committed suicide — or did she? Michelle Yeoh is great fun as the medium known as Mrs. Reynolds, who either has a special gift for communicating with the dead or is a sophisticated con artist.

Joining us for the séance are a number of colorful and perhaps dubious characters, including Mrs. Reynolds’ assistants (Emma Laird and Ali Khan); the wartime field surgeon Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), who has a crippling case of PTSD; Ferrier’s precocious, ghost-loving son Leopold (Jude Hill, who played Dornan’s son in the Branagh-directed “Belfast”); Rowena’s housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camile Cottin), and Alicia’s former fiancé, the gold-digging cad Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen). What a bunch! They’re all a little sketchy, if you ask me.

Somewhat disappointingly given the amazing locale, nearly all of “A Haunting in Venice” transpires within that palazzo, which we’re told is haunted by the souls of children who perished in a terrible tragedy back in the day when this was the site of an orphanage. (All orphanages in ghost stories have horrific back stories.)

At least one murder occurs. Poirot begins to see things — including a young Alicia. How can this be? The great Belgian detective keeps saying there has to be a reasonable expectation for all the mysterious and seemingly supernatural developments, yet he’s stumped. For the time being.

Jamie Dornan plays a wartime surgeon attending the séance.

Jamie Dornan plays a wartime surgeon attending the séance.

20th Century Studios

With his electric, piercing blue eyes and that fantastic mustache and slightly exaggerated accent, Branagh makes for a great Poirot, and he’s surrounded by a wonderfully talented cast of actors, some of whom are stretching beyond their most common personas. Tina Fey is such a modern presence as an actor, yet she does a fabulous job of infusing Ariadne with a kind of 1940s, screwball-comedy persona, while Jamie Dornan has done such fine work in “A Private War,” “Belfast” and here that he deserves total absolution for those “Fifty Shades” films.

“A Haunting in Venice” moves at a deliberate pace and doles out the surprises judiciously, like the adult on Halloween who says you can have only a few pieces of candy at a time. The treats, however, are well worth the wait.

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