I’ve been to Venice, Italy a few times and during my first visit, I wondered if the murky water flowing through the city’s many canals had ever been explored. Had anybody dived below and swum through the Grand Canal, for example? What would be discovered if the canals were sealed off and drained was another thought that popped into my head.
Although the canals have never been drained, I learned that, divers do, in fact, swim beneath the surface of the Venetian lagoon and its dull-looking waters and pull up garbage and debris, such as jewelry that’s fallen off someone’s wrist or finger. The divers are usually hardy gondoliers, who don wetsuits with the wonderful attitude of “this is where we work, let’s keep it clean.” And yes, more often than not, they swallow the polluted water.
More recently, small remote aquatic robots are sent into canals in every neighborhood in Venice to see what can be seen. There are a variety of plants, as well as fish and other forms of sea creatures. Coins, too. Lots of coins from around the world. Tourists making a wish love tossing coins, especially from the Bridge Of Sighs, as well as from the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, which averages seventeen feet in depth. Most smaller, so-called “backyard,” canals are about ten-feet deep.
Filmmaker Kenneth Branagh has decided to go to Venice for his third try at making a movie based on a mystery novel by Agatha Christie. “A Haunting In Venice” follows “Murder On The Orient Express” (2017) and “Death On The Nile” (2022). In addition to directing them, Branagh also stars in the three films as the world-traveling Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, whose unique mustache deserves its own billing.
The Christie novel Branagh has decided to turn into a movie is the oddly titled “Hallowe’en Party” from 1969. It features the character of Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist. The book was a failure. I know that the Christie fans among you are already shouting, “wait a minute, this novel isn’t set in Venice.” You’re absolutely correct. It isn’t. It takes place in the English countryside in a large manor on a leafy estate. And, it’s a fact that Christie never wrote a novel set in Venice.
So, what gives? What are Branagh and his screenwriter Michael Green up to? The answer opens the door to the reason “A Haunting In Venice” isn’t as entertaining as it should be.
They’ve taken classic, murderous Olde England, with its stiff upper-lip humor and surfeit of suspects, and turned it into a waterlogged and very weak horror film. Venice provides the water in the form of a fierce storm and massive waves smashing against traditional decorative posts for mooring gondolas. Cutaway shots to the howling wind and cresting water arrive on schedule every ten minutes or so, thus becoming a dreadful cliche.
The famed Poirot has decided to retire from detecting. No more crime solving for him. He’s out-of-sorts and is tired of the celebrity grind. He’s moved to Venice, and by 1947 he relaxes eating pastries and tending to his rooftop garden. If you’re aware of today’s trendy vegetables, he’s growing lovely Lacinato kale, which is also known as Tuscan kale, Dinosaur kale, or more important, in a visual reference, Black kale. He’s also ordered his bodyguard Vitale (acted by Riccardo Scamarcio) to keep the press and possible clients far from the door of his new home.
Of course, we’d have no movie if this situation continued. English crime novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, more American than British) manages to convince Poirot to accompany her to a children’s Halloween party taking place in a former orphanage where truly bad things happened to good little boys and girls. The former home to terrified children has been a private residence for some time.
After the party, the current Venetian children will go home and a post-soiree seance will occur at the palazzo. Its owner is a saddened opera singer named Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who lives like Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.” The place is a decaying mess and supposedly filled with ghosts, including the spirit of Rowena’s recently drowned older daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who just may have killed herself. The seance will be conducted by a psychic medium named Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh).
In classic Christie form, in addition to Poirot, Oliver, Drake, and Reynolds, all of the other attendees become suspects in what will be a murder. Or two. Someone does get impaled on a spike. Among the other participants gathering to summon Alicia are her brooding doctor (Jamie Dornan) and his intelligent young son (Jude Hill), Alicia’s insufferably smug former finance Maxime (Kyle Allen) and Rowena’s former ex-nun housekeeper Olga (Camille Cottin). Poirot’s bodyguard is also present in the dank and dark house, the ultimate horror movie contrivance, especially with all the scenes shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos at bleak, off-kilter angles. It’s terror by poorly lit overhangs.
During lulls in the slow-moving action, when I wasn’t getting bored by Poirot’s mumbling, murmuring or musing – whatever you call what he does – I was thinking about the fact that Dornan and Hill played father and son in “Belfast,” which Branagh directed and wrote, even receiving an Academy Award for best original screenplay. There’ll be no Oscars this time around.
The point of Poirot being at the seance is Miss Oliver hoping the always prescient Belgian will solve the mystery, and she’ll have delicious material for a bestseller. Her writing hasn’t been thrilling any readers lately. Lurking in the shadows are Mrs. Reynold’s strange assistants, Nicholas and Desdemona (Ali Khan and Emma Laird).
Those who know Poirot, know that he doesn’t suffer fools or psychics gladly. In “A Haunting In Venice,” he’s a truly moody fellow. This doesn’t stop him from bobbing for apples. After all, it is a Halloween party, and there’s a keen reason for the bobbing. Who’s being trapped? And why?
After too many coincidences, Poirot is required to name the killer. No one else has his talent. Alas, his panache has undergone some wear and tear. Is here anything worse than a gloomy Hercule? He may be retired, but he’s still a man who needs to think rationally. Solving mysteries is his Belgian waffle.