Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey, Kelly Reilly, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Riccardo Scarmarcio
Released: September 14, 2023
Grade: B-

A Haunting in Venice

Regardless of the artistic medium – books, movies, TV shows, plays – audiences’ interest in the “whodunit” has endured for as long as the genre has existed.  We yearn for entertainment and, as unrealistic as these tales can be, there’s something satisfying about stepping into the shoes of an experienced detective, piecing the clues together, and identifying the murderer(s).

Right now, there are two film franchises tapping into that demand.  The first is the Knives Out Mystery series, created by Rian Johnson and starring Daniel Craig as the camp detective Benoit Blanc.  Films were released in 2019 and 2022 with a third instalment hurriedly in production.  The series has been deservedly lauded for its fun and freshness with both nominated at the Oscars for best screenplay.  Through hilariously eccentric performances and craftily written twists, they strike the right balance between realistic intrigue and silly spoof.

The second franchise is based on the works of the late Agatha Christie and sees newly minted Oscar winner Kenneth Branagh (Belfast) serving as both director and star.  He embodies the character of Hercule Poirot, a world-renowned detective who is the first person contacted when a complex crime needs solving.  Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022) are now followed by the latest outing, A Haunting in Venice.

Bringing back memories of Woody Allen’s 2014 comedy Magic in the Moonlight, Venice opens with Poirot lured out of retirement by an old friend (Fey) and asked to debunk the methods of a woman (Yeoh) who can communicate with the dead.  It all takes place on a rainy evening in a rundown, “haunted” Venetian mansion owned by a mother (Reilly) who has engaged the spiritual medium to help answer questions about her daughter’s untimely death.  Those in attendance include family connections and the hired help.

I refer to Knives Out to help illustrate the limitations of the Branagh-led series.  There’s nothing overtly wrong about A Haunting in Venice but the material feels “dated” in comparison.  It’s a ho-hum 1940s mystery that doesn’t offer up any shock-inducing twists and sticks to the well-worn mould – a murder, interviews where everyone has a motive, and a relatively straight-forward resolution.  Laughs are thin (Poirot makes the odd quib) and, except for Michelle Yeoh as the spiritualist and Tina Fey as a waning American writer, the characters’ backstories aren’t hugely interesting.  Knives Out offers more originality and humour.

A Haunting in Venice is the kind of movie where you’re never bored… but you’re never blown away.