Once you get past the unnecessarily skewed angles, the standard aspects of a Christie mystery are present. As noted, much of the film is very much a drawing-room-style mystery, with a host of potential murderers and other criminals, all of whom are carefully and methodically torn down by Poirot to ensure that he can figure out whodunit. Mercifully, “A Haunting in Venice” does not make the same mistakes its predecessor did in terms of building out an origin story for details of Poirot’s life, such as the age-old mystery of why he ever grew that mustache. But while the screenplay (by Michael Green, who wrote the previous two Poirot films) is direct and simple enough in its own structure, not every performance is able to live up to what may have been on the page. Branagh’s return as Poirot is as officious and blunt as expected, and he does a reasonable job of communicating mostly through his eyes the confusion and near-terror he begins to feel at what initially seems to be the genuine presence of ghosts.
Among the other performers, the two standouts are Dornan and Hill, both of whom co-starred in another recent Branagh film, his autobiographical drama “Belfast.” Dornan is especially effective in building out a character as lovelorn as he is doomed by the memories of what he saw and experienced while fighting in World War II and liberating Jews at the end of the Holocaust. But the two most notable names aside from Branagh are Fey and Yeoh, each of whom is tremendously talented in their own right. So it’s all the more disappointing to see them either ill-used or briefly used. In casting Fey, Branagh inadvertently throws a spotlight on an issue that you can’t really plan for: it’s not that she doesn’t do her best in bringing to life a writer as awed by Poirot as she is hungry for her next success. But some performers (particularly comic performers) have a more contemporary sensibility and feel out of place in period pieces. Such is the case here, as Fey’s performance feels at odds with the others, simply because it’s hard to separate her work on “SNL” and “30 Rock” and the like with something as old-fashioned as this.
It continues to be hard not to watch Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot movies and think briefly of the more modern take, in the form of Rian Johnson’s Benoit Blanc mysteries. We’ve now had three recent Poirot films, with “Murder on the Orient Express” continuing to be the best of the lot. There, the old-fashioned murder mystery felt fresh instead of stodgy, lively instead of dry and dull. But when you think about the more contemporary take, blending mystery and satire and thrills with truly inventive writing and brilliant acting, there’s something a little less charmingly quaint about the Poirot films and a little more frustrating. “A Haunting in Venice” does try to spice things up, but all the skewed angles in the world can’t hide the fact that this mystery is half as eerie as it wants to be, and roughly as entertaining.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10