Kenneth Branagh is back with another theatrical take on Agatha Christie...
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Dornan
Running time: 103 minutes
In the third instalment of Director, Kenneth Branagh’s, cinematic reimaginations of Agatha Christie's famous murder mystery novellas, the action of Halloween Party - the title of the original novel - is shifted from England to Venice , where world-renowned detective, Hercule Poirot, has to contend with a dual operation between the suspenseful, supernatural setting and a paranormal murder-mystery to figure out who - or what - dunit.
In applying the hyper-religious backdrop of 1940’s Venice as the new stage for Christie’s metaphysical mystery to take place, Branagh not only breathes new air into the plot of an old story but manages to pay respect and homage to the very cultural character of the city into every aspect of the plot.
The core of the murder mystery derives from the mistakes of a malfunctioning mystique, Joyce Reynolds, who, on mis-performing a séance, highlights the juxtaposition between the characters' spiritual superstitions and the hyper religiosity of Venice. Branagh uses the anxious character of Maid, Olga Seminoff, as the vessel in which to navigate these tensions. Once a nun, now divorced from the church in pursuit of earthly romance, Olga has critique upon critique on the showmanship of this spiritual séance gone terribly wrong. She is a mere representation of a highly religious cultural mood that is at odds with the events only explained by the superstition of ghost stories. And it is this Venetian hyper religiosity, as emphasized through the character of Olga that becomes a leitmotif in of itself.
One of the most important, if not the most important, element for a film titled A Haunting in Venice is atmosphere. For a film to be haunting the atmosphere must, first, before plot, mirror that to the audience. And the backdrop of a dimly lit, crumbling Palazzo in the heart of Venice does just that. Quickly becoming the sole setting for the film's action to unravel, the Palazzo provides Branagh the perfect environment to curate a heightened sense of suspense, with the unrelenting storm echoing underneath the grounds of the Palazzo becoming a thriller device of its own making.
Branagh consistently remains aware of the spatial dynamics of the city itself and integrates them effortlessly into the rising and closing action of the film
But even outside of the confines of the crumbling castle, Branagh consistently remains aware of the spatial dynamics of the city itself and integrates them effortlessly into the rising and closing action of the film. In well framed and appropriately light shots - the famous charm of the boats of Venice do well to establish the intentions underlying the character’s actions when inside of the Palazzo. And what never once falters: whether the characters are situated out on the streets of Venice, or trapped inside of a haunted mansion. Alongside this the setting works in smooth tandem with the films audio score; which oscillates between traditional 1940’s Italian classical compositions and shortened sombre instrumentals that create an apt feeling of suspense.
The reason the element of suspense is so refreshing in A Haunting in Venice is Branagh's eventual exploration of the true nature of the soul’s endurance after death and how the notions of guilt and religiosity play into, and twist this philosophical dilemma for each character’s moral and spiritual self-reckonings. In Poirot’s, who previously was governed only by rigid rationality and prejudice, failing attempts to shape divination into order and logic he is forced to lean into and accept elevated, spiritual thought patterns to solve the mystery.
Out of all three of Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptations, A Haunting in Venice seems to be the only film that makes an attempt to showcase the original philosophical undercurrents of Christie's novels on the screen. But with a cast as interesting as Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Dornan there is still a large amount of fluctuating seriousness, where the fun that the Actors are allowed to have consistently shines through on screen.
What works to establish a great whodunit is the way in which the mystery is formed and fleshed out for the audience. It should first take on the face of an enigmatic puzzle - complicated and multifaceted , with a direction that is blurred, but not impossible to solve, and the way Branagh sets up A Haunting in Venice presents the puzzle-formula perfectly, making it an enjoyable, and gripping murder mystery: it is an easy to watch, supernatural murder mystery film that is elevated by the beginning of the Autumn season.
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