A good murder mystery may never grow old, but when the same themes are repeated from one story to the next, it’s certainly possible to inundate the genre with predictable tropes. Released in theaters Friday, “A Haunting in Venice,” the third of Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series, falls victim to several overused motifs.
Loosely based on Christie’s “Hallowe’en Party,” “Haunting” takes place in post-World War II Venice, set around 10 years after Branagh’s first two Poirot movies, “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) and “Death on the Nile” (2022). This latest portrayal depicts the Belgian detective as older, disillusioned and, of course, more flawed.
Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is your classic grizzled detective, drawn out of retirement by mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) when she asks him to discredit a seance performed by a psychic in a haunted house on the eve of Halloween. When the psychic, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), is murdered at the seance, Poirot puts himself on the case, solving not only Reynold’s murder but also a mysterious death from a year prior.
Poirot’s usual charm, characterized by an overconfident dedication to facts and philosophical thoughtfulness, is dulled by the movie’s attempt to make him seem aged. While he still has an occasional quip reminiscent of Christie’s Poirot, Branagh’s adaptation lacks much of what makes the character unique and is, as a result, less fun to watch. He is more human in “Haunting,” but his fundamental flaw only scratches the surface of human emotion. He has seen — and perhaps brought about — far too much death. In other words, he is like every other fictional detective.
That said, Poirot’s internal conflict is reflected well in the film’s cinematography and emphasized in some drastic departures from Christie’s version. Primarily, “Hallowe’en Party” takes place in a small town in England, while in “Haunting” the cast is trapped in a haunted house in an exotic location — recreating the same environment as the boat in “Death on the Nile” and the train in “Murder on the Orient Express” with a similarly small ensemble cast. This change certainly makes the film more intriguing and thrilling, but it also misses some of the charm provided by Christie’s depictions of the British countryside.
Of course, Venice is not a random choice. The city is renowned for its canals and the fact that it’s slowly sinking into the ocean, encapsulating a main theme of the film: drowning. The viewer learns early on that the first of the victims was drowned, and an attempt on Poirot’s life at the beginning of the movie almost leaves him drowning as well. But beyond that, the film’s emphasis on drowning, strengthened by numerous scenes of characters sinking through water and into oblivion, symbolizes a more common struggle: drowning in one’s own past. An obsession with what has happened and has been lost is not only the source of Poirot’s internal conflict but also the motivation for most characters, including the murderer.
But the film’s expected themes are not helped by the larger whodunit, which becomes fairly predictable about halfway through the movie. This ultimately leads to a rather disappointing conclusion that feels borrowed from a number of other mysteries. While the “suspects trapped in a mansion” seems to be an everlasting fan favorite in whodunit films, “Clue,” “Gosford Park” and “Knives Out,” the genre has become so saturated that original plotlines are rare to come by.
While “Knives Out” twisted the narrative and poked fun at the standard murder mystery tropes, Branagh’s attempts at comedy, mostly through Tina Fey’s quips, fell short. Fey’s snarky inserts disrupt the solemn, historic atmosphere created by the rest of the cast, and her comments feel better suited for her role in the mystery comedy show “Only Murders in the Building” than for this period drama.
As a result, “Haunting” doesn’t distinguish itself as anything special among countless similar films. But its dedication to the genre, multilayered plot and impressive cast all guarantee an interesting watch for fans of murder mysteries.