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Review: A Haunting in Venice

[The following review contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

A Haunting in Venice is the best entry in Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot series to date.

Granted, that’s a rather low bar. Murder on the Orient Express was perfectly serviceable, but also quite generic; Branagh’s usually unmistakable voice was seemingly smothered by studio interference, leaving the finished product virtually indistinguishable from a typical Hollywood blockbuster—which ultimately prevented it from escaping the long shadow of Sidney Lumet’s superior adaptation of the classic whodunnit. And while I’ve yet to watch Death on the Nile in its entirety, its marketing left a similar impression.

A Haunting in Venice, on the other hand, is a different beast altogether. In a departure from its predecessors, it essentially abandons Agatha Christie’s source material beyond the basic premise (altering the setting, discarding several characters, and even revising the title), instead crafting a largely original story—which in turn allows it to develop its own distinctive identity.

Branagh takes full advantage of this creative freedom, making very deliberate artistic choices that elegantly convey the movie’s mood and central themes. Early on, for example, when our recently retired protagonist is at his most cynical and pessimistic, the framing is rigidly static (apart from the occasional pan), the compositions disconcertingly claustrophobic—thus lending the visuals an oppressively mundane atmosphere. When the plot unexpectedly delves into the realm of the supernatural, however, the cinematography gradually becomes more stylized and dynamic: sometimes, the camera swoops and soars through shadowy corridors and spooky hidden passages like a disembodied spirit; in other instances, it’s mounted directly to Poirot’s chest, remaining focused on his face as reality warps and distorts around him. In an especially disorienting scene, the image literally flips upside down as the bewildered detective sprints through the shot, reflecting the metaphorical inversion of his perception.

These aesthetic flourishes aren’t exactly subtle, but they are extremely purposeful, mirroring the gradual evolution of the core conflict as the baffling mystery challenges our skeptical hero’s inflexible worldview. And in an industry that’s currently obsessed with maximizing box office profits at the expense of personality, this emphasis on craftsmanship, formalism, and narrative transparency is—God help us—legitimately noteworthy.

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