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Hercule Poirot is on the case once again in an entertaining blend of murder mystery and ghost story.

The Sleuth and the Sleuth Writer

Kenneth Branagh and Tina sporting fine hats
Kenneth Branagh and Tina sporting fine hats

There’s something special about Kenneth Branagh’s latest excursion as Hercule Poirot. While it’s still based – ever so loosely – on an Agathie Christie mystery (titled Hallowe’en Party), this one takes – as Branagh has put it – the “bones” of the material and makes it something quite new and fresh.

Instead of Medchester, England, the movie moves the tale to Venice, Italy, and refashions it into a modern, PG-13 ghost story. Well, modern in its storytelling style, but set in 1947. On Halloween.

What’s cool is that, while it is still a murder mystery, there’s quite a bit of delight to be had in the pairing of Branagh’s Poirot and Tina Fey’s Ariadne Oliver. Their repartee is snappy. They work surprisingly well together.

And, to add some spice to it all, while Ariadne is Poirot’s murder mystery writer friend in the original source material, Fey plays her with a wink and a nudge as a take on Agatha herself. Ariadne, after all, takes credit for Poirot’s success as a world-renowned sleuth.

This time Branagh sports a much more subdued mustache compared to Murder on the Orient Express (in which the ‘stache practically deserved its own acting credit) and Death on the Nile. But the mustache is also an outward expression of Poirot’s inner state. He’s retired and enjoying Venice. O the irony for a solver of mysteries to seek peace and retirement in a haunted place like the City of Masks.

Poirot’s bodyguard, Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio), blocks, tackles and dunks into the canals anybody looking to bother Poirot for his sleuthing services. He’s retired. He’s moved on to doing… well, not much. Egg shopping is certainly a highlight.

He’s semi-boastful of having no friends when his friend Ariadne visits his rooftop perch. Give Poirot a murder and the life comes back into him. As Ariadne notes, “All it takes is a corpse and look at you!”

It’s Witchcraft

And so it is the sleuth is engaged by the sleuth writer to attend a séance and, hopefully, identify the trickery so Ariadne can use it as a point of inspiration for her next book. While 27 of her 30 mysteries were best sellers, the last three were savaged by the critics. She’s looking for some literary redemption by way of the supernatural.

It’s a great set up leading to classic bump-in-the-night scares and quite a few chills. The séance, of course, is intended to make contact with a dearly departed. In this case, it’s Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson), the daughter of an opera singer, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly).

Alicia was engaged to an accused gold-digger, Maxime (Kyle Allen), and she died under mysterious circumstances. As it happens, there are plenty of suspects in attendance at the seance. But that back story murder leads to another after the seance. And then another. And some other crimes. And some spookery.

All in one haunted Venetian house.

Retirement be damned.

Poirot has hands full.

Exodus 22:18

Branagh and Fey joined by Michelle Yeoh
Branagh and Fey joined by Michelle Yeoh

Branagh and returning screenwriter Michael Green have fun playing with the horror tropes, and maybe even feel a sense of greater creative freedom by making the move to Venice.

The séance is led by spiritualist Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) and she decidedly has a taste for the theatrical with a dramatic room arrangement placing her squarely in the center, surrounded by the invited guests. And she doesn’t use a Ouija board. She uses a manual typewriter for her communication. A typewriter placed by the wall, out of reach from all in attendance.

Follow Poirot from there.

It’s a fun ride as he not only attempts to solve the murders, but also come to terms with his own faith. Of his lack thereof. Is the supernatural real? Poirot is not a believer and, based on the suffering brought about by two world wars, he has no reason to be optimistic.

That’s where Branagh and Green find some nice richness in the material. It takes the murder mysteries Christie mastered and spins up themes around life, happiness and success. And one great question: How will you live your life?

Of course, all the puzzle pieces come together. But Christie, Branagh and Green are slick about it.

The obvious clues become false leads.

That’s how great mysteries work.

Considering all the trickery and deceptions being perpetrated by various characters in A Haunting in Venice, the greatest sleight of hand is how Branagh has carefully crafted this funhouse ride. As Poirot confronts his ghosts and personal beliefs, he works this way through the rational and deduces the solution, as always. But, even so, the movie also manages to find the perfect ending with a supernatural touch.