Kenneth Branagh’s indulgent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s ‘Hallowe’en Party,’ featuring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, falters on substance
Ten years after the events of Death on the Nile (2022), Kenneth Branagh returns as Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective in Agatha Christie’s universe. Branagh, who has directed and starred in the previous two adaptations of Christie’s Poirot series —Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile — is now back with the stellar-looking A Haunting in Venice. Hercule Poirot was one of Christie’s most popular and recurring characters, appearing in 33 novels and 51 short stories. Unlike the first two adaptations which kept the name of the original book, the latest horror whodunit takes a different route.
Based on Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party (1969), A Haunting in Venice is set in 1947, and follows Poirot, who is now retired and resides in the enchanting Venice, as he ends up at a Halloween séance, only to find himself embroiled in another murder mystery — this time filled with spooky secrets and the presence of spirits of children who once lived in the orphanage where the séance is now held. The séance is being carried out by famous psychic, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who has been invited by the owner of the orphanage, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), to speak to her dead daughter.
Style over substance
This time around, Branagh doesn’t just depart from replicating the title, but also goes on to take liberty in adapting the novel rather indulgently and freely. Moving the original tale from an English village to a picturesque Venice, he sets the film in claustrophobic and dimly-lit rooms that hint towards the ghostly forces that might be behind the sinister events at the palazzo where the séance is taking place. However, the famous sleuth (Poirot) debunks the idea of spirits being involved, and wisely proclaims that the apparitions are a sorry distraction for the real forces that are at play, and so begins the detective’s scouring.
Much like Poirot’s own scepticism about the apparent haunted-ness of the events, the 103-minute movie even forces the audience into exhaustion with its lack of elements that scare. The ever-so-excellent Michelle Yeoh seems to be the only one who read the memo about this whodunit being given a horror makeover. For the rest of the teams, actors and crew alike, terror seemed like a far-fetched goal in the greed to accentuate the style quotient, which brings one to underline that it’s truly a pity that style cannot make up for substance because A Haunting In Venice was in dire need of the latter.
Superior production design
Although, credits given where they are due, because John Paul Kelly’s production design is nothing less than perfection and if that wasn’t enough, then cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos does a fine job at adding visual layers to Branagh’s rather shallow filmmaking. If anything, the movie is saved by its spectacular art direction that prevents it from being a snoozefest.
Typically, whodunits delve into the darker facets of human nature, exploring themes of destruction, deception, and the consequences of crime. They hold up a mirror to society, reflecting our fascination with both the criminal mind and the pursuit of justice. However, Branagh, both as an actor and director, seems too uninterested in focusing on the actual crime, robbing the viewers of mental provocation or emotional connection that they might want to form.
Moreover, the characters (again, except Yeoh) in the movie are as one-dimensional as they come. Forget about complex, multi-faceted personalities; here, we are treated to a cast of cardboard cutouts who display the profundity of statues. The most unfortunate part though was that the detective lacks the charm, charisma, or intelligence that make iconic fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot memorable. Hallowe’en Party features a cast of well-drawn characters, each with their own quirks and motives. Poirot’s interactions with these characters and his astute observations are central to the story’s progression.
An adaptation that falters
To add insult to the injury, today marks Agatha Christie’s 133th birth anniversary, and the latest adaptation to her novel is a reminder of how her oeuvre is an enduring emblem of the ironical comfort countless folks find in the dead bodies that inhabit her stories, making her one of the best-selling fiction authors of all time. Similar to most of Christie’s works, Hallowe’en Party is notoriously filled with unexpected twists and turns. Poirot ultimately uncovers the truth behind the murder and reveals the identity of the killer in a dramatic and suspenseful manner, a hallmark of Christie’s writing, but the very thing that Branagh fails at recreating.
It goes on to suggest that while whodunits have a comforting structure of familiarity with the uncertainty, and can seem like an easy package of entertainment, Agatha Christie’s work is characterised by intricate details woven into a tapestry of crime and suspense that, on the face of it, may seem unchallenging to adapt, but is evidently not everyone’s cup of tea. A Haunting In Venice does a better job than the first two movies by Branagh, owing to the art production and cinematography. So, all that is left to do is for Branagh to make a decent adaption of one of Christie’s other novels. Since there’s obviously no dearth of them, he will have ample opportunities to get it just right.