Just in time for Halloween
Don’t let the silly mustache or funny accent fool you: Kenneth Branagh did a very good job adapting Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories. While Murder on the Orient Express was a good enough thriller and a useful update to a classic whodunit, Ghosts in Venicenow on Hulu just in time for Halloween, is his best mystery yet (and let’s agree not to talk about Death on the Nile).
Ghosts in Venice is adapted from Christie’s novel Halloween party, but it changes quite a bit of history. Here, Poirot is drawn out of retirement at the behest of a mystery writer friend to investigate the dubious supernatural claims of a medium. Of course, things don’t go as planned and a murder occurs, leaving our heroic mustachioed Belgian detective no choice but to investigate.
Image: 20th Century Studios
After three Poirot films, Branagh is clearly gaining more confidence as a director in the murder mystery genre. Intrusive is full of stylish visuals and nods to some of the greatest directors of the era in which the film is set, from Fritz Lang to Orson Welles. The Venetian villa where most of the film’s action takes place is shot like a Gothic castle, with massive, looming shadows that stretch across the frame and absorb all the light in the room. Armor lurks menacingly behind the characters and at the edges of the frame, as if threatening to come to life. The entire film is extremely dark, filled with creeping dread and mystery, but never loses its momentum or sense of fun. Branagh can’t quite match the true masters in their originality of vision, but he’s become as adept at adapting and repurposing directorial styles and camera movements as he’s ever been at adapting stories.
The film is by far the scariest of Branagh’s detective films, so it’s great for a Halloween watch, but it doesn’t quite reach the full horror levels of horror movies. Convincing evidence of ghosts walking around and dead creatures crop up frequently, claims of a haunted orphanage are bandied about, and death usually lurks around every corner without ever getting too spooky for most viewers.
Image: 20th Century Studios
The only real mark against the film is that not all of its actors are up to the task of living up to the script and direction. Branagh is better than ever as Poirot: grand, knowing and just the right amount of stupid, but with the pain and sadness of someone who has faced a huge amount of death. Camille Cotin is equally good as the suspicious housekeeper and Michelle Yeoh is excellent in her very brief appearance as the medium Poirot is sent to investigate. Unfortunately, none of that can be said for Tina Fey. As Poirot’s author friend, she doesn’t have the charisma to match the rest of the cast and overplays her scheming enough to give away more of the film than it should. But this ends up being a pretty minor quibble with an otherwise very entertaining film.
The more time Branagh spends on his Poirot films, the more it becomes clear how much he loves making them. And that’s great, because they’re the funniest Branagh, both as an actor and as a director. He has to punctuate and use all the silly mannerisms a performance can handle. But Branagh is also at his best as a director when he has clear references to draw from, whether it’s novels or entire eras of filmmaking, and this series gives him both. And it’s a good thing he’s enjoying these because they’re starting to get really good. Here’s as much as he wants to do.
Ghosts in Venice now streaming Hulu.