“A HAUNTING IN VENICE”
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Kyle Allen, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Kelly Reilly, Riccardo Scamarcio, Michelle Yeoh
Written by Michael Green
Based on “Hallowe’en Party” by Agatha Christie
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Produced by Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund, Ridley Scott and Simon Kinberg
Cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos
Edited by Lucy Donaldson
Music by Hildur Guonadottir

By Matt Neufeld
Sept. 13, 2023

Kenneth Branagh’s third exceptional film version of an Agatha Christie mystery thriller in the last six years, the beautifully atmospheric, suspenseful, thrilling, mysterious, haunting, scary and entertaining “A Haunting in Venice,” is not only another high-quality film from the continually impressive Branagh, but the film just happens to be one of the best movies of the year. That’s right—-one of the best movies of the year.

That statement is justified pretty easily by the obviously above-average filmic achievements in all major areas of “Haunting”–this mystery thriller drama with hints, suggestions, allusions and illusions of the supernatural is well-directed by Branagh, well-written by Michael Green from a 1969 murder mystery story by Agatha Christie, well-acted by a stellar, high-energy and talented ensemble cast, and well-produced by Branagh, Ridley Scott, Judy Hofflund and Simon Kinberg. The film overall is elegant, classy, stylish, exquisite, intelligent–a rarity these days–and even quite inventive, inspiring and original in regards to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ spinning, revolving, twisting, turning, panning and wandering camera work, which becomes one of the movie’s major attributes and achievements.

And that’s something, considering the concurrent high level of achievement elsewhere in, as noted, every filmic level in “Haunting.” The film simply delivers a consistently exceptional level of high-quality entertainment that succeeds as equal parts mystery who-done-it thriller, detective story, drama and even spooky, creepy and eerie supernatural and paranormal ghost story.

Branagh has always been a stunningly talented, original and impressive filmmaker, of course, but he’s on an incredible roll in just the past six years. Look at what he’s done: “Murder on the Orient Express,” from 2017; “Belfast,” from 2021; “Death on the Nile,” from 2022; and now “A Haunting in Venice.” He’s been a producer, director, writer and actor on these movies, in varying degrees. Quite impressively, “Belfast,” “Nile” and now “Haunting” have each been one of their respective year’s best films. Not too shabby, Ken. Not too shabby.

What Branagh brings to his films, and to “Haunting,” is, simply, consummate, complete professionalism. He always surrounds himself with the best in the business on the production, crew and technical side, but he also always works with scripts that are reliably and assuredly thoughtful, insightful, perceptive, smart and savvy. And he always works with the very best, talented actors, often leading them as a tight-knit ensemble in highly dramatic or highly suspenseful stories and situations that require, and eventually deliver, a high degree of chemistry, teamwork and interaction. And his production design is additionally high-quality, filled with pertinent detail, lush designs, beautifully designed and constructed sets, elaborate costumes and props, and carefully thought-out, detailed period-appropriate props, set designs and lush art design and production.

And all of this is present and accounted for in “Haunting,” resulting in the type of intelligent, atmospheric, classy, elegant and entertaining film that’s just not as prevalent in movie theaters these days as they should be. We have the big-budget, splashy blockbuster spectacles, but there’s only so many of the same-old, same-old fights, chases, explosions, special effects, aliens, monsters, additional explosions, superheroes, additional special effects and more explosions one can take. What cinema truly needs more of these days is for smart films like “Haunting” and other high-minded, stylish films to regain their status as cinema leaders, trendsetters and instigators. “Haunting” is the latest reminder that smart, inventive, elegant and entertaining films can indeed be those leaders, trendsetters and instigators in film.

Set on a dark and stormy night in Venice on Halloween night sometime in the post-World War II era, “Haunting” finds Branagh’s ever-smart, well-dressed and fastidious–and exceedingly brilliant–detective Hercule Poirot retired and living a most comfortable, routine and predictable life of fancy, proper ways, means and manners in a beautiful, charming Venice. His somewhat stuffy, regular routine is abruptly interrupted by his friend, author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, in her most grounded, realistic and best performance of her career), who invites the reluctant Poirot to come, as her guest, to a Halloween night seance, featuring a well-known so-called medium, or psychic, at a supposedly haunted Venice mansion that just happens to be the scene of a recent murder. Poirot, of course, wants absolutely nothing to do with seances, mediums, psychics, alleged hauntings, ghost stories, Halloween or anything else associated with the supernatural and the paranormal. He’s smart, and grounded, and educated, enough to know that mediums and psychics are nothing more than elaborate con men, scammers and fakes; that no building or place is actually haunted; and that, in the real world, ghosts don’t exist.

Yet, charmed by Oliver’s witty and engaging charms, her appearance as one of Poirot’s few true close friends–and her natural beauty, too–Poirot agrees to attend the so-called seance, yet without surrendering his natural, and understandable, healthy scepticism and doubt about the highly-questionable proceedings. Once at the seance, Poirot also refuses to surrender his natural instincts for needed investigative research, attention to detail and ability to sniff out, uncover and expose fakers, fraudsters and flim-flammers.

It’s not a spoiler to note that the seance’s so-called medium, played quite captivatingly by a mesmerizing, mysterious and sneaky (and beautiful) Michelle Yeoh, who’s on a bit of a roll herself these days, is exposed by Poirot as one of those fakers and fraudsters. However, that’s only the start of a tumultuous night that ends up heading into all sorts of fun, bizarre, creepy, scary and suspenseful chills, thrills, deaths, deceptions, deceits, cover-ups, attempted murders, ghost stories and assorted possible supernatural heebie-jeebies and jeeper-creeper mysteries, suspicions, investigations and, yes, possible, or suggested, hauntings.

And it’s all as much fun as you would expect an Agatha Christie-originally-penned Halloween night murder mystery set at a dark, atmospheric Venice mansion amidst a raging, frightening storm to be.

What happens after Poirot exposes the medium to be a fake won’t be revealed here, of course, because, as always, the less said about any murder mystery is the prudent course of action.

Branagh leads that stellar cast in another exceptional performance as Poirot, a most captivating, energetic, educated, informed, grounded, reliable, realistic, trusted and stupendously brilliant detective. Branagh carries himself in such a regal, elegant manner, he rightfully commands every scene, the entire movie and the story. Branagh manages to always make his Poirot quite human, a very real man who fights his own doubts, abilities and dealings with the dark, strange parade of deaths and murders that always seem to seek him out. Branagh’s Poirot is brilliant and elegant and well-spoken and gifted with the stunning ability to solve the most complex and confounding homicides, but his Poirot is concurrently also quite human and down-to-earth. It’s a testament to Branagh’s exceptional acting abilities that he’s managed to successfully pull off this complex characterization and portrayal so well in three movies now as Christie’s Poirot.

And what a revelation Tina Fey is in “Haunting.” As noted, Fey presents her most assured, confident, commanding and also most grounded and under-control performance in her career as Oliver. Thankfully, none of Fey’s usual comedic bag of tricks–other than the natural comedic ability to deliver a sharp laugh line when it’s appropriate–are present here, and that’s a good thing. Fey’s role here is primarily a straight-on dramatic role, and it’s not really a comedic role. So Fey mostly plays it straight, and she ends up delivering her best career performance. Also, thankfully, she is entirely without those cumbersome and distracting glasses that usually annoyingly hide her attractive face and appropriately cutting and savvy facial expressions.

The rest of the large cast is also excellent. One other stand-out actor in the large ensemble is the young 13-year-old Jude Hill, who impressively delivers a top-notch performance as a prodigy-level, studious kid who dresses in adult-style prim-and-proper suits and buries himself in books at a boisterous and fun Halloween party filled with nice, fun kids that bustles around him. Hill was the young lead actor in Branagh’s exceptional “Belfast,” and it’s quite impressive to watch Hill deliver yet another high-level acting performance.

As noted, the cinematography in “Haunting” is astounding. Branagh and Zambarloukos present an array of creative and inventive angles, shots, pans, viewpoints, cuts, edits and movement with the cameras, and the cinematography here becomes a bit of an instant master class on how to effectively utilize cameras, lighting, sound and editing to succeed in presenting shots and scenes and edits in continually unique and entertaining methods that greatly enhance the story and the movie. You’ll notice the inventive camera work in “Haunting,” but you’ll also appreciate and enjoy it. The camera work is evident, but it’s never distracting and it doesn’t take you out of the picture.

The production design, set design, art direction, costumes, hair, make-up and effects are all exceedingly atmospheric, classy and stylish. The period detail work is high-quality, too.

Although “Haunting” contains elements and suggestions of the supernatural and paranormal, the film is not really a horror movie. The suggestions of anything supernatural are just that–only suggestions. Because most educated, sane people know what Poirot knows deep in his heart, mind and soul—that there’s never been any real solid, documented scientific, journalistic, cultural, medical or academic proof that mediums, psychics, fortune tellers, tarot card readers, ghosts, spirits or anything related to ghosts actually exist or have ever truly existed in the world. None, nada, nothing. They’re just not real.

And it was Harry Houdini–yes, the magician entertainer Harry Houdini–who sparked the modern-era movement to thoroughly debunk, uncover and expose mediums, psychics and fortunetellers as the scam artists, con men and grifting hustlers that they really are. Those other, spectral voices drifting through the air? Hidden microphones and speakers and recordings, or hidden actors. Tables shaking? Hidden mechanical devices. Lights flickering? Someone who’s hidden hitting some hidden electrical buttons and controls. Things flying through the air or levitating? Simple mechanics, hidden devices, and hidden strings, wires, cables, ropes and fishing lines. Revealed personal information? Either advance detective work or information fed to the fake medium via earpieces and electronic devices. And on and on. It’s all fake, and it’s always been fake. And it’s not even an impressive fake, as fake mediums who dare to present themselves as actually communicating with the dead do so at the expense of vulnerable, grieving and innocent people who desperately want to talk to their dearly departed. That’s just horrible, disrespectful and unprofessional. It’s a con, and it’s a particularly bad con.

As Poirot himself notes, we all have our own, individual rhetorical and symbolic ghosts in our lives. Although traditional spooky ghosts may not actually exist in the real world, it’s the psychological and imagined ghosts that exist in our psyche that we really have to worry about. For it’s man’s own individual ghosts of the psyche that truly haunt us, every one of us, every day of our lives. And those are the ghosts, and the hauntings, that we truly need to fight and fear, every scary sunny day and every scary dark and stormy night.

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Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.