Kenneth Branagh returns as the world’s greatest detective Hercule Poirot for the tantalizingly creepy mystery, A Haunting in Venice. The third time is the charm for Branagh’s take on Christie’s iconic sleuth with a creepy Halloween atmosphere, tight location, dastardly murder, and a sharper focus on the ensemble of characters. Still not the best Poirot ever, but the best effort from Branagh so far. Disney/20th Century Studios gives the film a fine Blu-ray release with excellent A/V and a small but nice selection of bonus features. Shame no 4K disc, but all the same a Recommended disc release.
There are many famous detectives on the big screen and small, but there is only one Hercule Poirot. There have been many fine actors (and a few bad ones) who challenged themselves to bring the Belgian sleuth to life each with their own unique take on the character. Acting as Director and Star Kenneth Branagh is but the latest talented thespian to do so. His prior outings were interesting takes on the famous Agatha Christie works Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, but they couldn’t outdo the previous cinematic excursions. But with A Haunting in Venice, a loose adaptation of Christie's Hallowe’en Party, the film is easily Branagh's most focused and tightly wound work for a genuinely creepy murder mystery.
Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is no longer the world’s greatest detective. In fact, he’s not even a detective. Contentedly living in retirement in Venice, he spends his time tending his garden, having pastries delivered by boat to his door, and avoiding any and all cases that come his way. But when his old friend fast-talking mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey in a fun Christie-surrogate-like performance) comes calling, Poirot is compelled to look at the dealings of medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). Invited to a seance on Halloween night at the tragic home of famed opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), Poirot intends to prove Reynolds is a fake. However, when a ghastly shocking murder takes place, the simple retired man must again become the world’s greatest detective to solve the crime.
In my past reviews of Branagh's Poirot films, I generally felt they were pretty good but far from amazing. I thought Death on the Nile was better than Murder on the Orient Express, but both films succumbed to Branagh’s habit of always being front and center and often with the best scenes. In addition to some less-than-convincing effects work, the ensemble cast for each film was frequently pushed to the background. Thankfully Branagh doesn’t completely dominate the show for A Haunting in Venice. The ensemble cast including Olga Seminoff, Riccardo Scamarcio, Rowan Robinson, Ali Khan, Kyle Allen, and Emma Laird all get to shine. Jamie Dornan also delivers a great performance as a nerves-shattered doctor trying to hold himself together for the sake of his young son. Branagh giving his cast room to actually shine is already a big improvement but it also helped add to the dramatic flair for this particular murder mystery.
Another improvement over the past films was the focused attention to scale and location. We don’t have any cheap-looking green screen locations. Between the exteriors shot live in Venice, the action almost never leaves the main house - and it’s a damned creepy spot to stage a murder mystery. Dark and ominous, it lends to the Halloween horror vibes while adding a more claustrophobic intensity to the film that the CGI-enhanced riverboat or train of the past films just couldn’t match. In Orient Express and Nile there was so much fakery to the imagery that I never felt the sense of danger of being trapped with a murderer. In this film, between the scary dreary location and the ominous storm raging outside, I never felt like there was an escape, I always felt trapped.
As Christie adaptations go I’ll give credit to Branagh and returning screenwriter Michael Green for taming a somewhat unwieldy story. Christie’s Hallowe’en Party is a decent little thriller but there are almost too many characters and the history of murder at the isolated location is too extensive to the point that it kinda gives itself away. I first read it about five or six years ago and I still remember saying - "Oh, that's the killer" with many pages left to go. Simplified and to the point, there are enough red herrings that even if you know the book you might be second-guessing the outcome and the motive. And then moving the action away from a rusty dusty estate to a “cursed” old house in Venice, Italy adds to the dramatic and haunted flavor.
I wouldn’t call A Haunting in Venice perfect, but for me, it’s Branagh’s best turn with Poirot so far. The hat tips to important clues are still very clumsily executed but overall this was a very fun and thrilling outing. And I hope there are more to come. Another victim of Disney’s rather stupid release strategy this year, this film should have gone to theaters in mid-October not September. It’s a spooky Halloween film wrapped up in a classic whodunnit murder mystery for adults. I understand Taylor Swift’s unexpected Eras Tour release and The Exorcist: Believer was a big force in theaters at the time, but this would have been brilliant counter-programming to all of that. I have a hunch this film would have had longer sturdier theatrical legs if the release season had been more appropriate. Globally it at least doubled its budget making it one of Disney/20th Century’s best performers of the year - which I'm sure is enough of a shock to kill any bean counter or executive at the Mouse House.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Kenneth Branagh’s A Haunting In Venice terrorizes Blu-ray in a single disc with Digital release from Disney/20th Century Studios. Pressed on a BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard case with an identical slipcover. The disc loads to a standard animated main menu with basic navigation options.
As the film enjoys a 4K with Dolby Vision release on streaming, disc collectors are left with a 1080p Blu-ray. While not ideal necessarily, I can’t fault this presentation really. In a rare move for Branagh, he and returning cinematographer Haris Zambarloukis switched from 70mm to digital so they could have better control over the low-light photography and I have to say it’s quite beautiful. Apparently finished with a 4K master, the details are still impressive in 1080p. Lines are clean and details in facial features, clothing, and the film’s beautiful locations are all rendered nicely. Low-light scenes (which is the majority of the film) feature plenty of nice deep blacks and ominous shadows. Colors are nice and bold with the palette favoring dark fall-like heavy greens, reds, and oranges. Skin tones are healthy and natural. I still would love to see a full 2160p HDR disc someday, but for now, this disc will hold up nicely.
Similar to the video, there is an Atmos track out there for streaming but on disc we’re left with a DTS-HD MA 7.1 track - and it’s still very good. I got to see this film in theaters and I loved the sound design work as it carefully pitched various sound effects and ominous tones against the moody score from Hildur Guðnadóttir (who also did great work on Joker and Sicario: Day of the Soldado). Dialog is clean and clear throughout without issue. Sound effects have plenty of pin-point placement for a rich immersive soundscape. Even during the quietest scenes, there’s enough activity or subtle creepy sound effects to keep the channels moving. Again, might not be as grand as a full Atmos experience, but I enjoyed this mix at home
As for bonus features, we’re given a pretty slim but at least somewhat interesting assortment. The half-hour making-of is pretty good. A bit short and can feel like an EPK piece, it does cover a variety of aspects of the production. But something meatier would have been welcome all the same. The deleted scenes are interesting cuts, but they ultimately feel like extensions and trims for pacing. There are some more scenes of Poirot throughout Venice which were cool to see some places I’d been years and years ago - but they clearly didn’t add to the story. Likewise, the extra party and investigation footage doesn’t really bring anything new to the show.
A Haunting in Venice certainly isn’t the best Poirot film ever produced, but for the Kenneth Branagh series, it’s his best so far. Scaling down the production into a tight location and setting aside his tendencies to always be front and center for me made a richer, creepier, and more exciting whodunnit experience. I love the photography of the film the excellent score, and the ominous sound design. I just wish we had a 4K disc to celebrate it with! As a Blu-ray-only release (so far) on disc, the 1080p transfer is very good and the 7.1 audio track holds its own. Considering there are a few Disney/20th Century titles that haven’t even gotten discs of any kind, I consider us somewhat lucky to have it physically at all. If you’ve enjoyed the movies so far and are game to keep building your collection - Recommended.