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“A Haunting in Venice” is the best of Kenneth Branagh’s mysteries yet

Director, star and moustachioed Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green return for their third Agatha Christie collaboration with “A Haunting in Venice.” It is clearly the most satisfying of the trio, which begins with Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) and is followed by “Death on the Nile” (2022).

I don’t like these movies and it makes me sad. I have enjoyed Christie’s books, Hercule Poirot mysteries and other books since I was 13 years old. But Branagh’s film versions often feel like the work of a committed but distrustful filmmaker; is very nervous about boring the modern audience with clue placement and exposition. He says he directs his own film towards visual distraction.

At least this one is less digitally exciting and the acting is rather sly. On the other hand, “Scream” comes with more jump scares than the “Halloween” and “Insidious” series combined; many feature parrots or pigeons.

Promisingly set in 1947 Italy, adapted from Christie’s 1969 film “Halloween Party”, originally set in England, “A Haunting in Venice” is right next to supernatural events, while Christie’s screenplay also He goes his own way. one session and beyond. The result is a close, dank cousin of “And Then There Were None.” Let’s call it “And Then There Were Less” and discuss what works and what works too much.

Like the other five Christie thrillers, this film stars both Poirot and the author’s stand-in, mystery writer and amateur detective Ariadne Oliver. In “A Haunting in Venice,” Oliver rescues his former Belgian friend, now retired, from his preferred solitude. As the script Americanizes Oliver, costume designer Sammy Sheldon has him wear the same amazing hats worn by Tina Fey. (The production design choice goes to John Paul Kelly, with lighting as well, and often a little more, by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos.)

In Venice, there is a specially prepared séance for death. Held annually in a very shady palace that used to be an orphanage, the annual All Hallows Eve party is held for orphaned Venetian children to have apple bobbing and hide and seek fun. The Palazzo’s owner, grief-stricken opera diva Rowena Drake (Yellowstone’s Kelly Reilly), has invited spiritualist Miss Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to summon the spirit of Drake’s late daughter, a drowning victim. Suicide? Murder?

Soon Poirot and Oliver have new corpses to consider. Among the suspects is Dr., who was psychologically injured in the war. Ferrier (Jamie Dornan); his bossy, secretly heartbroken son (Jude Hill, as Dornan, an alumnus of Branagh’s previous film, “Belfast”); a mysterious, religious maid (Camille Cottin); and, among others, Poirot’s fearsome bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio), who at one point throws a Poirot fan into the canal. You appreciate the sight gag, which is nice and dry despite being wet; It’s one of the few punctuation marks expertly implemented in a movie that’s mostly about zaps and grabs.

Kelly Reilly as Rowena Drake "A Haunted in Venice."

The good parts work largely because moving to Venice makes atmospheric sense. It is a city that suits almost every period. Unlike the soundstage mastery and green-screen technology of “Orient Express” and “Nile,” here Branagh and his digital effects team let the physical production, the actors and the city itself do their work. In a hectic 100-minute sprint, the most effective episode comes when the unidentified killer attacks Poirot for an apple (there is a similar scene involving different characters in the novel), followed shortly by a garish death. main character.

As for Fey, she’s fun. He is also limited in his writing, which is more purposeful than humorous. The script aims to turn Oliver against Poirot for various reasons and with uncertain results. Meanwhile, the eerie post-World War II atmosphere is made slightly less convincing by anachronistic phrases like “mitigation” and “revenue stream.” Between Branagh’s dazzling theatrics and the rise of horror, the film’s only understated ingredient comes from an unlikely source: Oscar-winning composer Hildur Ingveldardóttir, best known for her droning, grinding accompaniment to its groaning, arousing venom. Todd Phillips’ “Joker.”

Of course, the composer’s work here includes a series of squeaks and rattles that sound more like sound design than traditional composition. But in this case it is rarely too much. With Branagh visually going for broke, the score cleverly takes a different turn, weaving in and out of the plot’s machinations without too much exaggeration. Branagh’s portrayal of the slightly older and jaded Poirot remains two steps ahead of Branagh’s direction, quiet but carefully calibrated. But since the previous two Branagh Christies were successful at the box office, and this one likely will be as well, the phrase “revenue stream” might suit “A Haunting in Venice,” after all.

“A Haunted in Venice” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG-13 (for some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements)

Running time: 1:47

How to watch: Premieres in theaters September 14.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

excitement @phillipstribune



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