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Eerie, chilling, completely captivating: 'A Haunting in Venice' outdoes mediocre predecessors

"A Haunting in Venice" is an underrated mystery for the season, with compelling characters like Ariadne Oliver, played by Tina Fey. – Photo by @agatgachristie /

In 2017, 20th Century Studios and director Kenneth Branagh released an adaptation of the famous Agatha Christie novel, "Murder on the Orient Express."

Last year, Christie's "Death on the Nile" was added to the growing collection of films adapted from the famous author's mysteries. And while the films received a good amount of attention, critics and audiences were not impressed.

Even if you haven't seen the films, you probably remember Gal Gadot's remarkably bad performance in "Death on the Nile" and her infamous moment exclaiming that she had "enough champagne to fill the Nile" before dumping said flute into the river.

While I liked "Death on the Nile" a bit more once the murder mystery actually began, it was overall pretty average. All this to say, I did not go into Christie's "A Haunting in Venice" with high expectations.

The film starts with some moody imagery of gondoliers in creepy Halloween cloaks and masks, setting a darker tone than previous Christie-adapted movies. We then see our first shot of the world's second most famous literary detective and our main character, Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh), in retirement in his Venetian house. 

Then, the audience is introduced to his old friend — and one of the few weak points of the film — Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey). It's not that Fey is necessarily a bad actress, but she doesn't suit the character as well as the casting directors may have suspected, and she ultimately can't keep up with her co-stars.

But even this doesn't really drag the film down as the other performances in the film were all incredible. Branagh again does a great job as the lead of these mysteries, and the haunting adds an interesting layer to his character and performance. Michelle Yeoh is compelling and slightly disturbing as an overly passionate psychic, and Kelly Reilly excels as a grieving mother searching for answers from the beyond.

Some of the best performances from the film are from Jamie Dornan and child actor Jude Hill, who play a deeply troubled father and his son, respectively. Interestingly enough, Dorman and Hill also played father and son in Branagh's other film, "Belfast," another strong point in his directing career.

I usually have a bit to complain about after seeing a film directed by Branagh, but I found his often self-indulgent tendencies weren't apparent in "A Haunting in Venice." The tonal shift worked exceptionally well for the adaptation of the Christie novel, "Hallowe'en Party," and the dark mood really elevated the film in comparison to its predecessors. 

Like the characters themselves, I felt trapped in the dimly lit piazza while Hercule investigated the murder. The macabre but gorgeous visuals of this setting and the hauntings made the film art-like at times, which was surprising to me because I felt the imagery in the other two movies was a bit too standard and safe.

The supernatural themes in the film bring an interesting element to the usual and somewhat formulaic murder mystery story, as it forces Hercule to question his secular beliefs. 

Of course, if you've read Christie's books before or seen a lot of murder mysteries, you might be so used to twists that they no longer shock you. But "A Haunting in Venice" stumped me.

I, of course, in good movie reviewer form, won't clue you into the twists or the reveal of this one, as it's best to go into this movie completely blind. But trust me when I say it's a good one.

Composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, the film's score also helped with the overall dark feel of the movie. Often subtle and grim, it really helped to heighten moments of despair and drama alike.

Additionally, while "Death on the Nile" and "Murder on the Orient Express" often had strange pacing, "A Haunting in Venice" was expertly structured. The films historically hit a slow point when Hercule starts interviewing subjects, a fault more of the original material than of the films themselves, but this movie kept me gripped until the end. 

It's difficult to juggle so many characters and keep the audience interested and sympathetic to each one, but I thought this film was successful in that — something that makes the inevitable tragic happenings really hit home and shock the viewers.

After watching other recent Christie adaptations, I didn't walk into "A Haunting in Venice" expecting anything more than a mildly thrilling and somewhat boring romp. But I think this adaptation of the Hercule series is where Branagh finally found his footing. 

If you're a fan of murder mysteries, Christie's books or looking for something on-theme and Halloweeny for October, I highly recommend that you don't overlook this surprisingly excellent whodunnit.

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