A Haunting in Venice is a Halloween movie and also sees the return of the detective Hercule Poirot to the screen, as most recently played by Kenneth Branagh, who directed this film. The story is lifted from Hallowe’en Party, a 1969 Christie novel set in Britain, although here it is moved to 1949 Venice. Little of the original story remains, although bobbing for apples is retained as the staging of an attempted murder. Since this is Venice, floods rage outside, and a past drowning adds to the haunted setting. It all fits.
Hercule is cynical and resigned, wishing to do no more with the world or solving crimes: a post-war slump wears him down, and he seeks to seclude himself in Venice, left somewhat scruffy but stalwart as groups of American GIs, the latest horde of barbarians, wander about the city, taking in the sites.
Into Hercule’s funk comes Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a murder mystery writer whose sales are slumping, and in an effort to revive her career, asks him to visit Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a spiritualist whom Ariadne wishes to expose as a fraud. The palace where she conducts her seances happens to be the same place where some gruesome murders of children occurred in times past. A reluctant Hercule goes along, and it is child’s play for him to show that Reynolds is not what she claims to be. But when a murder occurs after the seance, Hercule is back in action, with Ariadne as his Watson. The palace is sealed off and a terrific storm outside offers a lot of special effects, water, and tension to the captive guests.
A Haunting in Venice is an old-fashioned whodunit, delivered with impeccable polish by the cast with the usual plot twists and turns. The palace is appropriately spooky, with odd touches such as rats that come out of a gargoyle’s mouth, and a weird cuckoo clock featuring Adam and Eve. It’s a very good film for Branagh, and some critics have noted that h e exhibits some Orson Welles touches — which is not unusual since, as an actor/director, his films seem an echo of Wellesian efforts.
Unlike the 2022 film See How They Run (which I reviewed here), A Haunting in Venice retains enough of the genre to entertain. There are stabs at studying post-war cynicism and despair, but it is not elaborately done, instead focusing on the plot and a death involving the daughter of opera singer Rowena Drake. But was it only a death and not . . . murder? See the movie.
Branagh angers me since he always likes to plop blacks into his movies, but not this time. Of course, Michelle Yeoh is Asian, but as we know, they’re honorary whites. The Holocaust is likewise omitted, which seems odd given its time and place. Perhaps we are seeing the obeisance to Jewish power of the last two generations beginning to die out. The minority victims in the story are half-siblings who are gypsies (or Romani, given that the film uses the politically-correct term), one very pale young woman, and a swarthy, Arabic/Indian type. There is also a children’s party supervised by nuns where there seem to be a few more black faces than one would expect in 1949 Venice, but that’s all.
Interestingly, the characters are obsessed with escaping to Missouri after watching Meet Me in St. Louis in a displacement camp. Since I live in St. Louis, this got some laughs from the audience. Missouri as a free haven? So it might be. If everything goes down in the next year, be reminded that Missouri is a red state with St. Louis as a blue dot on its border. Plan your flight to freedom accordingly.
The film’s setting is a mix of creepy and oppressive, and is an excellent stage for the story. I won’t say much more lest I divulge the plot, but it is a very watchable commercial film, But since many of you decry today’s cinema — and not without reason — you should enjoy this movie. It has a bleak, overcast atmosphere dominated by interior shadows that mirror Hercule’s post-war despair. His apartment has an flat open roof where he conducts interviews; it is almost a bare stage, which is apt for an actor. Orson Welles would have approved.
I noted the previews shown beforehand as well:: two Marvel films with predominantly black casts as superheroes, and a November film about Napoleon directed by Ridley Scott and starring Joaquin Phoenix which looks very good. and, There are thankfully only ten minutes of previews in the semi-arthouse cinema I attend. I saw Sound of Freedom in a mainstream duplex that showed us 30 minutes of previews, in a theater full of crowds where I was the only man not wearing a T-shirt and shorts,.
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