A third Agatha Christie adaptation from actor-director Kenneth Branagh, “A Haunting in Venice” is the weakest entry in the series, which has really been not much to brag about. “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) made a healthy $352 million worldwide. But “Death on the Nile” (2022) made less than half that. In this installment, Christie’s fussy Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Branagh, sporting a mustache in need of a leash) lives in postwar, post-Mussolini Venice in 1947 in self-imposed exile and retirement. Smart-mouthed, famous American author of mysteries Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) shows up to rattle his windows and get Poirot, whose first name she insists on pronouncing with the “H,” jump-started by introducing him, a “non-believer,” to the “spiritualist” Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”).
The spiritualist has been hired by the distraught former opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly, “Yellowstone”) to make contact with her recently dead daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson). The séance is to take place at the dank and chilly Drake palazzo after the annual Halloween party for rowdy Venetian orphans in party masks. Prepare yourselves for a lot of tolling bells and a screeching parrot.
Venetians, we are told, believe that every home in their city is “haunted or cursed.” Poirot has a bodyguard in the form of a retired Italian policeman named Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio, “John Wick: Chapter 2”), who pushes one Poirot client wannabe into a canal. A skull-faced storyteller weaves a scary tale for the children using silhouetted figures and crude rear-projection. We learn that children were once imprisoned, starved and murdered in the palazzo. One of the séance guests Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan, “Belfast”) is a veteran suffering from “war neurosis,” whose sensitive young son Leopold (an excellent Jude Hill, also “Belfast”) takes care of him. Another guest is the volatile former fiance of the young, dead woman. The party looks very expensive for a woman who claims to be ruined. The cinematography by Branagh regular Haris Zambarloukos (“Belfast”) is one of the film’s strong suits. At any rate, the atmosphere is extravagantly morbid, what with all the masks, and a figure of Death riding a gondola, approaching the Drake residence.
In the séance scenes, Mrs. Reynolds appears to get a vintage typewriter to type out letters using her mind, while Poirot prowls the scene eager to unmask a person he believes to be a fraud. The palazzo sports a chiming grandfather clock with a Garden of Eden motif and a scantily-dressed Adam and Eve and serpent who make hourly appearances. The highlight of the séance is Mrs. Reynolds speaking in what Mrs. Drake insists is the voice of her daughter.
To the accompaniment of a big storm arriving on cue, someone dies horribly. It is at this point that Poirot goes into his super-intelligent, human-bloodhound mode, mustachio bristling, if not barking.
As usual, Irishman Branagh makes a meal of Poirot’s Belgian accent. I prefer Branagh’s damaged Swedish detective Kurt Wallander to his Poirot any day. When the killer is unmasked, I found it convoluted and hard to swallow, in a manner of speaking. For a spookier Venice-set mystery, see the 1973 Nicolas Roeg classic “Don’t Look Now.” The “Haunting” screenplay by Michael Green (“Jungle Cruise,” “Murder on the Orient Express”) is more like a board game than a narrative. Who needs AI? All will be explained by the pince-nez’d Poirot. But tell me this, Hercule, why am I so bored?
(“A Haunting in Venice” contains violence, disturbing images and mature themes)
“A Haunting in Venice”
Rated PG-13. At the AMC Boston Common, AMC South Bay and suburban theaters. Grade: B-