Little Gray Cells
We don’t see too many elegant movies any longer. Why is that, I ask you? Perhaps part of the problem is that the modern cinematic landscape is separated by a vast gulf. On one side are blockbusters. They’re designed to be big, loud, and appeal to anyone with a pulse and some without. On the other side lies independent film. They’re small, scrappy, and frequently made for the nichest of niche interest. As a result, there’s very little middle ground for intelligent fare made by studios for a moderate budget.
Is part of the problem that modern society is dumber and coarser? That’s an easy answer, perhaps too easy. It’s true that many of us seem to have lost the majority of our critical thinking skills, and that one of our major candidates for president was accurately referred to as a short-fingered vulgarian. Perhaps we’ve always been dumb and coarse, and when your parents or grandparents smugly reminisce about the good old days, you can remind them that, during the 1950s, there were seven entries in the Francis the Talking Mule franchise, most of them profitable..
Elegance is like manners. We don’t tend to notice it or appreciate it in the moment, yet we miss it when it’s gone. Whatever the reason, when an elegant film comes along, it ought to be celebrated. Kenneth Branagh’s A Haunting in Venice is a bit more than a solid murder mystery. It’s an embrace of elegance that we don’t see too much of any longer.
The celebrated detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is alone rather than lonely. At least, that’s what he tells himself. He lives a quiet life in post-World War II Venice. His fame as a sleuth hasn’t abated. In fact, he’s hired ex-cop Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio) to be his bodyguard, and Portfoglio shows real aptitude in chasing away the lines of people asking for Poirot’s help.
One person who isn’t chased away is the famous Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), the world’s greatest mystery novelist. She and Poirot might not be friends as such, and there might be more than a little exploitation in their relationship. In her way, Ariadne cares for him and can see he grieves for someone and for a world gone by.
Ariadne’s solution coincidentally/not coincidentally dovetails with research for her latest book. She learns of a Halloween party at the palazzo of opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). In attendance will be Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a medium who will be conducting a seance attempting to reach the spirit of Alicia (Rowan Robinson). She’s Rowena’s daughter who died under highly suspicious circumstances. Ariadne is positive Mrs. Reynolds is a fraud and she thinks Poirot is the man to prove it.
This being a story starring Hercule Poirot, information comes to light regarding the death of Alicia and someone else turns up dead. In short order, Poirot must investigate a number of suspects that include a traumatized doctor (Jamie Dornan), his unnervingly mature son (Jude Hill), a twitchy housekeeper (Camille Cottin), a pair of refugees (Ali Khan and Emma Laird) assisting Mrs. Reynolds, and Alicia’s snotty ex-fiance (Kyle Allen). And throughout the vast palazzo echoes the whispers of children…
Many directors these days would nab a set, a green screen, and simply call it a day. If virtually anything can be created by the magic of CGI, why not exclusively use it? Director Kenneth Branagh disagreed. For A Haunting in Venice, he utilizes CGI in tandem with real Venice filming locations and soundstages. That decision creates a sense of tactility and weight, something that hasn’t been able to be replicated solely by computers. Along with that is Branagh’s choice to make a murder mystery with very real horror elements. It’s not just that a majority of the film takes place during a booming thunderstorm. The actors weren’t told about specific moments when doors slam, wind gusts, or lights blink out. That sense of surprise informs both their performances and a degree of tonal chaos. Don’t misunderstand me, Branagh hasn’t made Poirot by way of Evil Dead.* He’s very aware that this film operates in the shadow of World War II. There’s a very real sense of people having lost loved ones, innocence, a sense of optimism.
That tonal sorrow fits nicely with the intelligent screenplay by Michael Green. He adapted Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party” and made a number of huge changes.** One of them is moving the action from England to Venice. Not only is Venice far more picturesque (Sorry, Brits!), but the new locale fits the mournful tone and apprehension toward the future. That’s also reflected in the vivid characterization. Like Christie’s previous works, everyone here has a secret. Nearly everyone is also wrestling with trauma. It’s all tied together, which makes all the characters sympathetic to a degree. Don’t worry, the entire thing isn’t a bummer, and there’s a quiet and puckish sense of humor that rears its head occasionally.
We’ve got a cast that collectively understands they’re in an Agatha Christie mystery and calibrates their performances nicely. Everyone’s a little broad, but not too broad. As Poirot, Branagh’s performance isn’t quite as amusingly pompous as his appearance in Murder on the Orient Express. That’s okay, since he’s locked down the character’s affectations and quasi-Belgian accent, and added a sprinkling of psychological complexity. He has marvelous chemistry with Tina Fey’s arch Ariadne Oliver. Fey has always been a smart performer, and I’ve particularly liked her when she’s gotten a chance to be more dramatic.*** Here, she’s playing a woman who used Poirot to jumpstart her literary career and is content to exploit his fussy nature and powerful deductive skills for as long as possible. Could one read her character as a reflection of how Agatha Christie felt toward her creation in the last years of her career? Once certainly could!
A Haunting in Venice is the third Poirot mystery. Is it his best? I can’t say.**** But I can say it’s entertaining, thoughtful, and meticulously crafted. Kenneth Branagh’s possibly final entry***** has an elegance, a grace in how it balances the thematic darkness with the fun of a cracking good murder mystery. We don’t see too much of that anymore, and we should cherish it.
**This adaptation is only vaguely related to the original novel. It felt a lot like filmmakers adapting Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. Frequently they would only use the title and create something new.
***Too many people slept on Fey’s excellent war dramedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
****It’s true, I haven’t yet seen the second film, Death on the Nile. I’m just one man.
*****A Haunting in Venice didn’t bomb, per se, but it did underperform. That’s probably because most people figured they would wait to stream it. I get it, but decisions like that tell studios that movies like this are not a priority for audiences.